Monday, June 28, 2010


Oh Lord, here we go.

As I'm sure you're aware by now, the Native American trend is sweeping the blogosphere and the outdoor music festival scene.  This typically includes headdresses, warpaint and mocassins, and occasionally will also include braided pigtails and next to no clothing.  And I have a problem with it.  Please allow me to explain.

Yasser Arafat in a keffiyeh (Wikipedia)

The first and most obvious analogy is to the keffiyeh scarf.  I'm sure you remember when everyone was wearing the big square scarves folded into a triangle around their necks two years ago.  When I first bought an urban outfitters knock off, I was mildly concerned about the religious implications.  I wore the damn thing once before I got an "uh, do you know what that means?" at which point I promptly took it off and was too embarrassed by my own actions to ever wear it again.  I didn't mean to offend the people around me by taking something meaningful and turning it into mindless fashion.  The hipster movement with the scarf was started as a show of respect and solidarity with Palestine in their conflict with Israel, a bridge between hipster culture and the Palestinians born from the anti-war movement.  However, if this meaning existed initially, it got lost pretty quickly as the trend caught on with the mainstream and the people wearing it were doing it without any awareness or concern for the garment's originally intended meaning.  (I could launch into a whole discussion about who decides the meaning of a garment right here, but I'll save that for another post.  Taking a culturally or politically significant scarf and covering it in VapoRub so you can huff it at the next rave is not an acceptable form of appropriation.)  And especially in light of the war, it seemed like we were making a mockery of both the garment and the culture it came from.  But the public really responded to this one and the trend died almost as quickly as it started as people realized how shitty they were being.  (And let's not get started on the fact that a lot of stores stopped pushing the sale of keffiyehs because it seemed to indicate that they were supporting terrorists.)

Photo from this great article about keffiyeh appropriation

For the record, I do not think that all fashion is mindless and that appropriating something into the fashion world necessarily robs it of its meaning or value.  A lot of fashion is art and it's used to define and communicate within and between our social groups, an incredibly valuable function.  But with that in mind, what do you think you're saying to all of the Native and part Native people that are alive and still native in the world right now when you make a shitty, knock off headdress and slap some warpaint haphazardly on your cheeks and pose for a pic with a tomahawk?  Given the fact that this is being done primarily by the dominant culture (as most of the style blogs with wide readership are written by young, affluent, white women), trivializing the spiritual and cultural meanings of these symbols is robbing the remaining American Indians of the parts of their culture that they've managed to hold onto through all of the ridiculous shit that the American government has put them through (and basically saying that you don't give a fuck).

The Haute Pursuit

Hopefully you have some familiarity with these atrocities through your US (or world) history class, but you probably don't think about the things that are going on right now very much because they don't get talked about very much.  No one wants to hear about the plight of the Indians, right?  That shit's a bummer.  But, to raise your awareness for one second, within the last 20 years the air force wanted to test their planes flying low over a field of cows, but PETA raised a big fat stink.  There were COWS in that pasture and everyone knows that sonic boom level noises will scare the shit out of those poor cows.  Solution? the government rerouted the test flights to be over an Indian reservation.  Indians matter way less than cows.  And that's just one of the many examples.  The government also really likes to dump toxic waste onto reservations.

My Floor is Red

So maybe this is why I get so fucking mad when I see another picture of a blogger I respect and admire who puts on a headdress and thinks she's being cute.  While most of my native friends more or less brush this under the rug as merely another example of how ridiculous white America (and Canada and Italy and France) can be, I'm not willing to be so silent.  If people passively let this continue, nothing in the way we think is going to change.    If the headdresses and warpaint are meant to respect and honor the native culture, if the trend is truly meant as a bridge rather than a fence, then it has to be treated as such.  Making a mockery of an entire group of people is not any way to create a bridge between the cultures.  Obviously I'm not the first to write on the topic; this debate has sort of blown up on the internet as of late, but it seems to have only reached ears that want to hear.  My anger surrounding all of this is fueled by the total ignorance I've been met with when trying to point out how horrifying this trend can be.  And it's not even that people are just ignorant, it's that they really don't care at all how racist they're being once it's been pointed out.  In an attempt to enlighten one craft blogger, I got this e-mail in response:

I'm sorry to hear that you were disappointed in last weeks project post.
Last weeks "Boho headpiece" project (in addition to all the rest) are all about drawing inspiration from beautiful, wonderful, magical, provoking, lovely images, people, places, and products.  Our goal is to never copy one single trend, person, culture, etc. It is simply a culmination of the above mentioned.  

Whether its the California boho styles, or a vivid image from a High-Fashion Magazine, we truly think that whosever look, style, or sheer essence is amazing/commendable, we pay homage to it/them via Designer DIY.

I hope you will continue to stay a fan of [blog name removed]... and again, sorry for causing you any discomfort with the posting.

She doesn't give a flying fuck!  And she's totally ignorant of what she's drawing from.  (Also, she needs to find the apostrophe key and figure out how to write an e-mail that doesn't make her sound like she's on 12 hits of acid, but that's neither here nor there.)  Here's the inspiration collage attached to the post that I complained about:

What in this says california boho?  The Bohemian movement is a very specific thing and doesn't really have derisive cultural appropriations as one of its tenets.  Every time I see a blog post like this, I try to raise the awareness of what the person is communicating to the world by treating Native Americans like a fictional people.  The crafter's pathetic excuse for a response is the closest I've come to affecting change, most people don't even take the time to respond.  The woman pictured at the top of the post (My Floor is Red) had this to say:

I do always read carefully every single comment, so this mean I've given attention even to yours. I think I understand what you're meaning, but in my opinion I'm not feeling so out of contest with these pictures. My intention wasn't to appear dressed like a "native": wearing feathers and some "special" make up don't hurt a specif kind of ethnic group but if so I'm sorry!

Wow.  Just wow.  She gave attention, even to my comment?  What a doll.  I know there's some language barriers here, but that's a little passive aggressive.  But either way, her makeup isn't "special," it's offensive.  And her feathers do hurt a specific ethnic group because the feather headdress has a very specific cultural, spiritual, and ceremonial meaning.  Not to mention that she's sitting in the middle of a fucking wheat field with her hand to her forehead like she's searching the horizon for prey.  Warpaint, wheat field, inappropriately worn headdress.  To me, this spells o-f-f-e-n-s-i-v-e.

Awww, cute baby.  Doesn't that make you feel better?

Ultimately I have to agree with Adrienne from Native Appropriations on this one.  If you claim that you're doing this to respect and honor the culture, then learn something about the tradition (zohmygod, take the time to actually learn about Native culture?  But they're not even real people!  right?)  and buy whatever you're buying from a real life American Indian--they make them still, you know.  Even the city dwelling Natives that I know have pretty extensive backgrounds in traditional artistry and can make some seriously bad ass stuff (like the hand sewn and beaded leather baby backpack that a friend made for a wedding gift, pictured above).  Or they could at least point you to someone who could.  And don't go out in a headdress and warpaint, these are both culturally significant and in fucking it up you're being offensive.  As Adrienne suggests, try a turquoise necklace, a beaded headband, or a cute pair of mocassins, but definitely not all at once.  (And, by the way, the people on the reservations need that money a whole lot more than the yuppy bitch that felt like make headbands in her spare time or the Michael's crafts with their neon plastic feathers and hot glue guns.)

I'm not asking a lot here, and I know that headdress probably set you back more money than you're willing to admit, but if you take one thing from this article, please just think about the role of fashion as communication between cultures and also communication about the power relationships therein.  By making a mockery of Natives (because that is what you do when you wear a headdress inappropriately), you're asserting your presumed superiority and trying to give it the appearance of being a natural power relationship.  White people can do that and look ironic or whatever, but a) if a Native person wanted to make a mockery of you, they wouldn't have anything comparable to appropriate and b) if a Native person were to wear some DIY Michael's headdress, it would convey a whole new set of meanings that I'm not qualified to get into in this post.  When non-Native hipsters appropriate Native fashion, it's like claiming that hipsters have more of a right to ascribe meaning to these items than Native Americans do.  Tell me you see how that's more than a little fucked up.  There's nothing about your (or his or hers or my) culture that makes it inherently better than any other.

Two Native Americans in appropriately donned head gear
Photo from The Abenaki

The website Native Languages has a full breakdown of the meanings of headdresses from various cultures and can be found here.  This is what they have to say about non-Native headdress wearing:

"If you are not Native American but are just trying to make a headdress for an art project, we recommend making a beaded headband, since headbands do not have the same sacred meaning of many other Indian headdresses and do not require you to understand complex cultural traditions to create one properly. The book North American Indian Beadwork Patternsincludes a nice pattern for beading a Native American headband."

My friend Jordan at a powwow (top) and working at his thoroughly modern job as an EMT (bottom)


  1. i love your blog, just stumbled across it. you were the only commenter at holier than now who was intelligent enough to really respond to the question about turbans making some sort of come-back (i wasn't aware that they were ever in "style?"). i blog at and focus a little on pop culture (media, news) but mainly on women providing alt representations of femininity. i really want to do a post on you/whiskey tango foxtrot. where are you from?

  2. fantastic round-up and explanation. the first time i heard criticism leveled against a fashion blogger for wearing a neon warbonnet, i didn't really get it, but i'm totally hearing you. my theory is that it's often meant as a sort of harkening back to childhood...cowboys and indians, halloween costumes, thanksgiving plays etc. sorta like how all the hipsters were dressing up as max from "where the wild things are" for a while. which is definitely not to justify it.

    anyways. great post. thank you. i'll have to include this in my next linkage post.

  3. Holly - Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post, especially since it gives me a chance to rattle off a couple of other thoughts I've been having. I know that I haven't yet pegged where the native trend comes from; there must have been some pool of original inspiration a few years back (film? photography? the environmental movement?). I hear you about the childhood bit, but how often did our generation do the cowboys and indians thing? I don't recall ever playing it as a kid. The closest I came was to making the construction paper feather headbands around Thanksgiving. (I hope to god they don't do that in schools anymore.) But at the same time, there were plenty of racist cartoon images--pocahontas, for one. So why is it that we dress like Native Americans instead of like smurfs? Or the munchkins from the wizard of oz? Man, I loved that movie as kid!

    But I think what you have hit on is the fantasy element that I definitely see there. I think there is a blend of the escapist desires of the modern hipsters and the fact that native americans really seem to represent the eco movement for white people. Our idea of their original connection to the earth, the way they think about time and human connection, it can all be rather inspirational. But I don't think that's what the warbonnet represents in pop culture at this moment. I think it's been appropriated so many times over that it is now just an empty, mocking symbol.

  4. Quite :/

    My mama's a teacher...I'll have to ask her about Thanksgiving in her elementary school.

    I didn't even notice you were a San Francisco blogger, and then it turns out we were even at the same [tiny] concert? Crazy! I love it. A pleasure to make your acquaintance!

  5. I never even knew those scarves meant something and were from a different culture! Dumb. Now I'm all interested to find out the true meaning of these Native pieces we've trivialized with fashion.

  6. You know what makes me laugh (sardonically) at the white appropriation of Native symbols?

    Back when there actually were more than like, 5 Native Americans left, they forcibly sent their children to schools where they were made to assimilate into white "American" culture. So it's bad for people who are actually "ethnic" to be "ethnic", but it's okay for white people to? It just doesn't make any sense.

    Personally, I tread carefully when it comes to making a fashion trend out of cultural aspects. I truly believe it requires a least a little research (I don't even mean hours spent poring over dusty books -- the internet is here for all of us to use! For good!), instead of going on assumptions and stereotypes.