In 2012, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for branding its products with names like “Navajo hipster panty” and “Navajo flask.” During that time, however, trends now associated with Coachella—that is, feathered headdresses, fringed minidresses, warpaint—exploded, becoming the standard uniform for music festival-goers near and far. Sure, there’ve been many think pieces denouncing cultural appropriation in recent years, but Native American symbols are still casually imitated at places like El Cosmico, a 21-acre campground hotel in Marfa, TX where you can buy $200 moccasins and a talisman to help you “trip out in the desert.”
Liz Lambert, the owner, runs a boutique hotel group with five hotels that adhere to the concept of “rustic luxury.” El Cosmico is geared to my demographic: white twentysomethings possessing disposable income, drawn to New Age-y symbols, and eager to have a singular—perhaps even transformative—travel experience.
While planning my trip to Marfa in July, I perused El Cosmico’s website, clicking on images of “Sioux-style” teepees, “Mongolian” yurts, and artfully decorated trailers with tongue-in-cheek names like “Imperial Mansion” and “Princess.” I found the website’s copy to be charming, but in a tone-deaf kind of way; after all, its “about” page claims inspiration from a hodgepodge of sources: “nomads,” “the colors and cultures of India,” and “Garuda…the guiding muse and totem.”
When my friend and I realized that the cheapest option would be to pitch our own tent on the grounds, we went for the second cheapest: a “safari tent,” complete with electrical outlets and a queen bed fitted with a serape-printed duvet cover.
Bemused by the site’s mishmash of references to Native American, Eurasian, and Latin American cultures, I wondered how many ethnic heritages one company could co-opt before crossing the threshold into appropriation. When removed from their cultural contexts and stripped of their specific meanings, the value of each smokestack-topped teepee and stylized talisman is diminished. I looked to El Cosmico’s vibrant Instagram account to learn more about the kinds of guests they attract, and discovered a litany of heavily filtered photos featuring white couples in serape robes (in the on-site gift store, these are curiously sold as “kimono” robes), along with hashtags like #cult and #elcultismo. Guests book teepees and tents at El Cosmico to have an adventure or what they view as a spiritual experience—not to learn about Japanese culture or Native traditions—and their intention makes all the difference.
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When I finally arrive at El Cosmico, I’m greeted by an ersatz Native American figurine and a gift shop selling body oils, Palo Santo incense sticks (used in parts of South America for medicinal use), and Bolivian blankets described as “antique.” A Day of the Dead skull display catches my eye, and I wonder if the artist would’ve arranged it as such if they understood that skulls are used to honor Mexican families’ ancestors during Dia de los Muertos. To reinforce the hotel’s brand identity, there are also foam beer koozies, printed bandanas, scented perfumes, and leather-bound notebooks marked with El Cosmico’s signature, whimsical typeface, on sale. I flip through books like Cunt Coloring Book and How To Be a Texan, and find the discordant collection of merchandise—tools for spiritual use, books for entertainment—to be unsettling.
What’s particularly troubling about this marketplace is the question of who benefits from the items’ sale. El Cosmico purchases their teepees from Reliable Tent, a privately owned company based in Montana. On its website, Reliable Tent advertises Sioux-style teepees that cost upwards of $1,000; they include product descriptions like “Tipi Etiquette is something fun to read and abide by.” Although there’s no mention of this so-called teepee etiquette at El Cosmico, Reliable’s wording—which implies voyeuristic participation in Native rituals—is troubling. In 2016, teepees are not only structures for ritualistic use; at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where indigenous tribes are protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Native treaty lands, they’re used as school classrooms and organizing spaces.
So-called teepee etiquette is “derived from traditions that Native Americans historically followed,” David Nemer, owner of Reliable Tent, told me, “you know, in terms of respect for their culture and their family and teepees in general.”
After Nemer’s vague explanation, the tents’ authenticity seemed especially dubious.
I ask if Native people benefit from the company’s profits. “Local tribes don’t see any of the revenue, no,” Nemer said, adding that Reliable Tent makes donations to a nearby reservation and offers them “discounted teepees.”
In a country where one in four Native Americans are living below the poverty line (at Standing Rock, the poverty rate is nearly 43%, which is triple the national average), the economic disparity between indigenous communities and companies that profit from their symbols is staggering.
Later on, at a happy hour event on the grounds, a bearded and tattooed DJ flanked by an American flag plays alt-rock from a record player, while a smattering of guests sip micheladas and homemade sangria. Several people are smoking American Spirits and wearing a lot of denim. My friend fiddles with an iPhone app that identifies stars, and soon we’re excitedly, conspiratorially, searching for Jupiter with two girls at our table. It’s almost as if I’m home in Brooklyn.
Marfa has a “tourism-based economy,” assistant general manager Sally Beauvais told me, conceding that service jobs are the most steady source of income for locals. Fortunately, the racial divide between staff and guests at El Cosmico is less stark than at a retreat like Spirit Weavers, where hispanic women serve a mostly white clientele. Still, though, its gift shop encourages guests to pick and choose the parts of non-European cultures they want to engage with, and leave with a flattened understanding of those cultures.
In the same way that El Cosmico sells parts of minority cultures for a lot of money, it also sells a very narrow, inaccurate idea of what West Texan culture is to their guests.
“El Cosmico feels like when someone goes to a music festival and [they] wear the complete outfit, as though a sandstorm’s gonna come,” Grace M., a 26-year old traveling from Austin, told me. “I get weirded out by when I see someone from the Northeast and they’re in, like, full West Texas garb, like they’ve adopted the whole identity. But it’s all so expensive that no one from West Texas could afford it, and would actually think it’s ludicrous to buy.”
After trying on a pre-distressed cowboy hat in El Cosmico’s gift shop, an overpriced item that felt like a cheapened way to participate in Texan culture, she said, “It’s trying to buy that authenticity that bothers me.”
In Marfa, a multimillion dollar art installation sits beside a small house surrounded by dirt roads, while an upscale boutique selling expensive silk separates is one block away from a humble backyard restaurant serving $2 tacos. The area is rife with economic asymmetries.
The night before I leave, I slip into a wood-fired Dutch tub, agave-infused drink in hand. A woman, in the nude, slips into the tub behind me. The clear, starry sky is overwhelmingly beautiful. The scene is so tame, blissful even, that for a moment I forget how bizarre it is to be surrounded by glowing teepees in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert close to the U.S.-Mexico border—but far from any Native reserve.
Anna Furman is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers arts- and travel-related stories for New York Magazine, Vice, and Paper, and more.