Activist and influencer calls out 'inclusive' brands for leaving out mixed Indigenous voices: 'We are not a monolith'

·6 min read

When you tune in to one of Kara Roselle Smith’s Get Ready With Me (GRWM)-style Instagram reels, you’ll see the usual factors of a successful beauty influencer video: her glowing complexion, the universally adored Nars concealer. But don’t expect to walk away with just product recommendations. 

“It’s not lost on me that the majority of those in the Indigenous community booking campaigns and securing features fit the European beauty standard,” Smith captioned one reel. “Some members of our own community fail to uplift mixed voices. Understand this: ALL mixed Indigenous peoples deserve to have a voice. We are not a monolith.”

Yes, there have been some major steps made by beauty companies to be more inclusive in recent years. Media publications started promoting more Indigenous-founded brands, and big retailers like Sephora Canada launched Indigenous History Month initiatives. 

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But brands are barely scratching the surface. After promoting its Indigenous History Month campaign, Sephora Canada had to issue an apology for lacking diverse representation — there were no Afro-Indigenous models featured.

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again until we see the change,” Smith wrote on Instagram. “If your ‘inclusive’ Indigenous campaigns and conversations don’t also include those who identify as Afro-Indigenous, they are not inclusive.”

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As a regular 20-something Instagram user herself, Smith noticed the uptick in beauty videos on the platform and how they racked up views. While some listed products, a lot of beauty influencers were telling unrelated stories while doing their makeup — YouTuber Bailey Sarian has built an entire online empire around doing her makeup and talking about true crime. So Smith thought she’d take advantage of the already growing trend.

“People watch [beauty routines] anyway, so I kind of just thought it would be a great time to do storytelling or incorporating songs from an artist like Bobby Sanchez,” Smith told In The Know. “I thought it would be a really great opportunity to pair something [with beauty routines] that would be more important.”

Sanchez is a Latinx Indigenous artist who, like Smith, promotes mixed Indigenous representation in their work. Sanchez’s Indigenous background is traced to Ayacucho, Peru.

Smith herself is an Afro-Indigenous member of the Chappaquiddick Wampanoag — Chappaquiddick is the tribe, Wampanoag is the nation. 

“My Indigenous heritage and lineage come from the people on the easternmost coast of Turtle Island in North America,” Smith explained. “We were also known as People of the First Light, and we were the first people in North America that were colonized and had interactions with settlers.”

The Mashpee Wampanoag is a tribe in the same nation on mainland Massachusetts, and they are known for being the Indigenous peoples involved in the first Thanksgiving story.

Smith’s mom, Alma Gordon, is African American and Indigenous, while Smith’s father is African American. Smith’s mom, who had previously served as the tribal historian, started getting more involved in the tribe in the mid to early 2010s before starting her role as the Sonksq (the word for a woman sachem, or chief) of the Chappaquiddick tribe.

Despite her mom’s position and Smith’s own involvement in the tribal council, part of the frustration Smith addresses in her videos is how people question her when she references her Indigenous side. She refuses to answer people who ask what percentage she is Black versus Indigenous — a question that more Euro-centric-looking Indigenous people never have to deal with.

To Smith, a lot of this has to do with the general public being told that a “true” Native person has light skin and long, dark hair. 

“Like a lot of issues, we can’t count on people as the solution,” she said. “We really need to [fix] the structures we have in place — schools and education need to teach that there isn’t, like, one tribe. All different colors have all different features, and I think brands and companies need to do a better job of including [that], like [in] Native American Heritage Month campaigns and just a lot of things surrounding Native identity.”

These videos are not about Smith proving to strangers that she is Indigenous — she doesn’t and shouldn’t need to — but they are about taking down the commonly accepted monolithic definition of what a Native person should look like. 

“It’s really [about] creating a space and validating people who, like me, are sometimes even learning some of [the] traditional practices and still working on making regalia because a lot of people were stripped of that knowledge [when] things were Christianized,” Smith explained. “Sometimes, people don’t have ribbon skirts or traditional earrings and things like that. That doesn’t take away from your ingenuity. You can come as you are.” 

Currently, Smith is working on promoting the Land Back movement, which allows Indigenous groups to regain autonomy and control over the care and protection of public land. The movement isn’t about anyone “owning” land, but rather it enables the communities to preserve the land that means so much to their tribes.

Plus, it benefits everyone — even outside of the tribes.

“An example that I like to use is that for the longest time, Western tribes had this tradition and this know-how of turning over the soil and burning [it], and that stopped, you know, when statehood and other things and the government took over,” Smith said. “[There were] a lot of wildfires recently out that way, and they actually called on the Indigenous tribes of that area to help the firefighters fight those fires — learn what the land was doing and how they can manage it better in the future. So it’s implementing more Indigenous knowledge and relationships like that.”

Between being involved with the Land Back movement, promoting her podcast, Made by Many, and serving on her tribe’s council, Smith has really grown to appreciate her roots. And nothing will stop her from continuing to call out companies and brands who do not give her and other mixed Indigenous people a voice.

“I’m realizing that I come from such a resilient line of people in that, you know, [there are] a lot of hardships that a lot of my ancestors on both sides faced,” Smith said. “I’m here. And I think that’s really beautiful. And I want to live and have joy and participate in the modern world. But I think that it’s also really special to be able to honor and pass on things from my ancestors in things that I do know.”

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If you liked this story, check out this article about Prados Beauty, the brand going above and beyond for the Indigenous community.

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