Native American Headdress Controversy
The original use and meaning of Native American headdress has evolved over the last 180 years of cultural appropriation. Now, music festival goers are under attack for style-copying the war bonnet. The anti-headdress drumbeat shouts false claims of genocide & racism, and unnecessarily attempts to create villains and guilt.
Why am I blogging about the war bonnet?
I recently went to a music festival (the Euphoria Music & Camping festival) on assignment as a photographer. Many attendees of these electronic music festivals (EDM) wear special clothes and decorations. The festival goers EDM regalia is diverse, artistic and sometimes beautiful. Different outfits can include earth-tone, rainbow-family style, patch-work wear, neon, kandi, jeweled eyes, bling, fluffies, fishnets, binkies and a headdress or any combination of these styles.
Of particular interest to me were the feathered headdresses inspired by Lakota (Sioux) war bonnets (a.k.a. Native American headdress). Some wore versions of the trailer warbonnet that has single or double rows of feathers going down the back in a long ‘tail’ all the way to the ground. Most wore halo warbonnets with feathers fanned out around the face in an oval shape. A few wore straight-up feather headdress, which are taller and narrower with the feathers going straight up. All three types were often decorated with bead-work. Although these were knock-offs, I enjoyed the opportunity to view them.
About a month after the festival a friend shared a post on Facebook that said, “Why you should leave your headdress at home when embarking to your next music festival outing and other reasons why you shouldn’t be wearing one…” Along with the post was a link to an article Why You Shouldn’t Wear A Native American Headdress.
There is a vocal group of Indians, from a few tribes, who are offended that non-native people style-copy the Sioux feathered war bonnet. They are not happy it is worn outside of their particular tribal norms.
The point of this blog entry is to point out that this is an enormously complex issue and many of the simplified, absolute statements that are made are debatable and sometimes outright fallacious. Please read that sentence again.
Before commenting further on this issue I should disclose the following: There is a memorial-endowed scholarship in my mothers name for students of American Indian descent who are studying in the field of education. My paternal great grandfather was of Cherokee descent. I grew up in a home with many books, paintings, and sculptures with Native American subjects. I have never worn a war bonnet and I don’t plan to—especially at a music festival.
With this background, it is not without sympathy that I consider the controversy surrounding the wearing of the Indian headdress. And, I am not drawing lines in the sand in regards to my arguments or opinions. As always, it’s not my way or the highway.
The term Indian headdress, or war bonnet, etc…
When most people think of an Indian headdress, they think of the “flaring” bonnet of eagle-feathers that fan upward and/or around the head. As a result of cultural appropriation by tribes in the plains area, it is sometimes referred to as the plains-style warbonnet or headdress.
In this article I will use the terms native American headdress, bonnet, headdress, war bonnet, and warbonnet interchangeably. I am referring to what is known as the plains style headdress.
The term Native American, Indian or American Indian, etc…
I usually refer to the original peoples of the continental United States as Native Americans. As with many things, this term has its own set of controversies. According to a 1995 U.S. Census Bureau set of home interviews, most of the respondents with an expressed preference refer to themselves as “American Indians” or simply “Indians.” Therefore, I will use all three of the terms interchangeably in this article.
War Bonnets: Cultural Appropriation by Indians
The exact date of its invention is not known. As the first traders, miners, ranchers and settlers and other white immigrants traveled west, they did not see true war bonnets until they encountered the Eastern Sioux. And, the few worn by them were style-copied from the Western Sioux (or Tetons) who are believed to be the originators of the style.
Apparently, the feathered headdress was not very common in the 1830’s and 1840’s. By the 1850’s it was becoming known in the plains area but was still unknown to many of the plains tribes such as the Kiowa and Comanche. In fact, the Comanche did not wear feathered war bonnets like the Sioux until the late 1800s– well after Quanah Parker, the last war chief of the Comanche, surrendered in 1875. By the late 1800’s the cultural appropriation of the headdress was mostly limited to 12 or so tribes from the Great Plains region (Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Plains Cree, etc…).
During and after the later reservation era, people from other Native American tribes began to wear the feather warbonnet. Partially in an effort to commercialize upon and inadvertently perpetuate the Indian stereotype for the tourist industry and partially because the various tribal cultures who once lived far apart were now living in close proximity to one another in Oklahoma and other Indian territories. This accelerated cultural appropriation of the war bonnet from one tribal culture to the next makes sense considering how awe-inspiring and memorable it is to view a warbonnet.
In most cases, the new tribes that took the plains-style warbonnet stripped it of the nuanced meaning that it held for the culture that birthed it. For them, wearing a headdress was for fashion/commercialization, or other general symbols or purposes. For the old Tetons, and the other tribes of the plains that originally took it as their own, it is said each feather stood for a display of honor or courage in war.
As the 19th century closed and the 20th century moved along you could find the plains war bonnet worn throughout the United States and Canada by plains as well as non-plains Indians. Today, these headdresses are also worn at Powwows or at tourist locations on or around Indian reservations, and at important events, to show status, etc. Non-plains Indians even bestow them on non-natives as honors (think Chief Wha-Nee-Ota of the Creek and Elvis Presley).
The cultural appropriation of the headdress has been going on for over 180 years. And it very much seems, when a tribe culturally appropriates the headdress, its use and meaning varies with the particular culture of each tribe.
Retorts to Objections, Bogus Claims, and Contradictions
Is it wrong being inspired by another culture? Surely not. Does borrowing from a historically oppressed culture change the answer?
Making the rounds on social media networks I found articles giving reasons why the Native American headdress is off limits to cultural appropriation by dominant cultures (i.e. non-natives, read “privileged” whites). These articles/reasons are picked up and promoted as gospel although a lot of it is misinformation. This section calls out (read “opposes”) some of the objectionable claims that seem to follow this debate.
Call out #1:
“The headdress is reserved for our revered elders who, through their selflessness and leadership, have earned the right to wear one. It’s a spiritual garb, not just cultural; it’s not merely an addition to one’s attire. Wearing one, even an imitation headdress, belittles what our elders have spent a lifetime to earn.” — Simon Moya-Smith, citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and journalist.
I assume Simon is attempting to throw guilt on the modern festival goer whose regalia includes an imitation headdress. He is also, perhaps inadvertently, accusing other Native Americans of belittling his elders, as many other tribes allow toddlers and children to wear them—violating his “reserved for elders” claim.
Example #1 of Native American child wearing headdress
Example #2 of Native American child wearing headdress
If any tribe can complain it would be Simon’s Lakota (or Teton) whose ancestors probably invented the headdress. However, isn’t his view myopic? There isn’t one “Native American culture” or one set of “Native American values.” He does not speak for all Native Americans. At best, Simon’s quote is relevant to and/or applies to members of his tribe only.
Call out #2:
“Both feathers and face paint have purpose and often spiritual significance depending on tribal protocol and individual interpretation. In Native cultures, both feathers and face paint are earned through actions and deeds that bring honor to both tribes and nations. Individuals [outside the community] who wear feathers or face paint were not given the rights or permissions to wear them. This is analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or Medal of Honor that was not earned.” — Dennis Zotigh, Cultural Specialist, National Museum of the American Indian.
American Indians were not the only race in the history of mankind to utilize feathers and face paint nor were they the only ones to ascribe spiritual significance to such items.
To say that individuals outside his Native American community need “rights and permissions to wear” feathers or face paint is absurd. Since childhood I have saved every feather that had significance to me. I consider them spiritual according to my individual interpretation and certainly should not need permission if I want to wear them.
Wearing a headdress is not “analogous to casually wearing a Purple Heart or Metal of Honor that was not earned.”
1. The analogy is comparing apple to oranges. The Medal of Honor was created by the U.S. Congress and its use is restricted by law. It is for an act of valor while in action against an enemy. At the time of this writing only 3,465 medals have been awarded to 3,446 different people. Hardly anyone has earned more than one Medal of Honor.
Nowadays, an eagle feather can be given for brave deeds whether you are in the military or not. Or, maybe you get one when you become an adult or graduate college, or for good deeds to the community, etc…. A headdress can have up to 31 or more eagle feathers. That is a lot of honors. Not to take anything away from the honor of receiving an eagle feather for the bonnet but it is clearly not the same thing as receiving the Medal of Honor. And, isn’t it insulting to say otherwise?
2. Non-Indians are basically forced to wear imitation (tourist) headdress—they are not real war bonnets. They are not made with sacred eagle feathers. According the US law, only Native Americans are authorized to posses eagle feathers.
A non-Indian wearing an imitation headdress is more analogous to casually wearing a custom medal in the shape of your home state, which is then inscribed with your name on it.
Yes, they both look like medals. However, anyone familiar with the Medal of Honor would not be offended if you wore the Texas one. If you are a Native American who holds the eagle feather and the bonnets made from them sacred, you should know a hipster in a headdress is not the same thing (and they are not trying to be).
3. This brings us to the “Restricted Symbols” argument where certain symbols (i.e. military medals, bachelor degrees, etc..) can’t be legitimately possessed by just anyone. Some Native Americans claim the headdress is a restricted item and wearing an imitation is akin to forging a medical degree to get a job as a doctor when you are not qualified.
Wearing tourist headdresses is not the same thing as forging a degree or sticking fake medals on your uniform for the purpose of tricking people or pretending to have earned these symbols. I don’t think many individuals (if any) are “forging” a war bonnet in order to claim benefits inherent with the symbol.
4. This is beside the point, but how does Dennis or any other Indian know the circumstances of how an individual [outside the Indian community] acquired their imitation headdress? It could have been given by relatives for the good deeds one has done. Or, maybe it was earned in some other way particular to that individuals micro-culture within his family or group.
Call out #3:
“As wearing a headdress reinforces stereotypes about Native people and appropriates our culture with little or no regard for our traditions, I think it is egregious and contributes to the dehumanization of our people.” — Jacqueline Keeler, founder of EONM (Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry).
She is speaking about “our traditions” as if there is one “Native American culture” or one set of “Native American values.” She does not speak for all Native Americans. The U.S. government recognizes about 566 tribes within its borders and there are over 250 unrecognized tribes. Each of these 816-plus tribes has a different culture. Who knows how many of them have appropriated the headdress and each may have their own traditions in regards to it.
At the music festival, the style-copied headdress is usually incorporated into a festival goers regalia. Their outfits are usually something different that bears minimal resemblance to traditional regalia of Plains tribes or any other tribe. They are not pretending to be Indians while wearing the headdress. Much less pretending to be old-Hollywood-stereotype or Halloween Indians running around going wowowo or saying, “Me, Tonto”, etc…
How can incorporating the bonnet further the stereotype that Native Americans are one monolithic culture if festival-goers are not dressed as or trying to be Indians? It cannot and it does not. Furthermore, it does not place Native Americans in the historic past. Indeed, festival attendees are incorporating it into EDM culture as something new that exists in a modern subculture. Besides, asserting that a headdress as a stereotype is negative would say something negative about the headdress itself, and that wouldn’t make any sense (to me).
Call out #4:
Native Americans are commercializing the headdresses.
Native Americans handcraft these headdresses to be sold and marketed to the masses. None of them say that white, black or Asian people should not wear them or that war bonnets are only to be worn in accordance with (fill in the blank) tribes modern tradition.
The American (or global) consumer society probably isn’t aware of being engaged in acts of appropriation. People (including some American Indians) who wear headdresses are not doing it to be intentionally disrespectful to any tribal culture.
If war bonnets are sacred to one tribe or another, why go after the ignorant consumer instead of the Native American who is selling the headdress? After all, they are the ones fueling the commodification of culture.
Call out #5:
It is the same as wearing black-face.
No. Wearing a feathered bonnet to a concert festival is not the same thing as wearing blackface.
If you’re going to argue that comparison you need to show that the offenders’ specific intent was the degradation of Native culture. There is a difference between engaging in an activity/tradition whose primary intent is the degradation and dehumanization of a specific group of people, and making an ill-advised fashion statement by wearing feathers in your hair because you find them aesthetically pleasing. Intent is everything. (Whether or not performers in blackface are knowingly degrading people of color is, perhaps, a legitimate argument. But not here.)
- Some music festivals have subcultures that participate by wearing festival regalia. If they add the warbonnet to their regalia it is not so they can pretend to be a Native American.
- Black face was used to make a character who did stupid things look even more stupid. People wearing headdresses at a concert– they’re wearing them because (in their opinions) they are cool looking. That is not racial stereotyping.
- Black face is intended to mock blacks. Wearing a headdress is not intended to mock Native Americans. The festivalgoer is not making a statement about Native Americans. They want to wear colorful feathers. They’re style copying a piece of a foreign culture and wearing it.
- Black face represents someone’s physical appearance rather than a symbol or an item.
From bobert on the Coachella forum:
“I strongly disagree with the blackface comparison but as a Real Life White Person my opinion may not hold much weight. I think a better comparison would be a white (or yellow) reggae fan clad in Rastafarian garb.”
“Now, is Homer expressing his love of reggae music, or is he engaging in a dehumanizing act of racial appropriation? Or does he simply think the hat looks cool? If a Real Life Black Rastafarian sees Homer wearing the hat and is offended, does it matter that Homer didn’t intend to offend anyone, but simply wanted a cool looking hat to wear at Hallapalooza? If another Real Life Black Rastafarian sees Homer wearing the hat and is not offended, is Homer off the hook, at least in this instance? Or is the act of wearing the hat itself innately bigoted, regardless of personal intent or who, if anyone, takes offense?”
“A few more hypotheticals that have crossed my mind: In the film Laurence of Arabia, the main character dresses in Arab garb while traveling across the African deserts. He wears a turban, has flowing robes, rides a camel, the whole nine yards. Has Laurence engaged in a racist act of racial appropriation, or does he get a pass because these clothes were simply the most comfortable option given the climate?”
“In New Orleans there are dozens of “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians that march during all of the carnivals. “Mardi Gras Indians have been parading in New Orleans at least since the mid-19th century, possibly before. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as minorities within the dominant culture, and blacks’ circumventing some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians. There is also the story that the tradition began as an African American tribute to American Indians who helped runaway slaves. These slaves married into the tribes on occasion. An appearance in town of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1880s was said to have drawn considerable attention and increased the interest in masking as Indians for Mardi Gras.”
“So I ask, is this also an act of racial appropriation that is “just like blackface?” Or do the tradition and the marchers’ intent to pay tribute to the Native peoples with their costumes supersede any perceived act of racism? Since this is a tradition that was forged between two oppressed minority cultures, would it be inappropriate for a white person to join the march in costume – i.e. if the costumes are innately racist is it more wrong for a white person to don the dress than a black man?”
“Finally, one more hypothetical: say a Native America Man dons a traditional Sioux headdress during a ceremony with his community – it’s the perfect, most appropriate use of that headdress in the context of that culture. Take that same headdress on plop in on the head of some raver girl at Coachella and it becomes inappropriate…… this is much different than blackface and minstrel shows in a very fundamental way: there is no appropriate context for blackface……Blackface was not about appropriating another culture’s dress or style, it was a scathing caricature of the physical characteristics of Africans meant to make them seem less human, and all for the amusement of white audiences.”
Call out #6:
If you are not offended when a festivalgoer wears a headdress it means you are racist.
Whether someone is offended or not has nothing to do with being a racist.
Get to know the definition of racist.
Racist: a person who believes in racism, the doctrine that a certain human race is superior to any or all others.
1. The belief that races have distinctive cultural characteristics determined by hereditary factors and that this endows some races with an intrinsic superiority over others.
2. Abusive or aggressive behavior towards members of another race on the basis of such a belief.
Call out #7:
Wearing the headdress at a music festival is to condone racism and colonialism.
Since when did the war bonnet become a symbol of racism and colonialism?
When a festival goer wears the headdress (s)he is not instilling the headdress with racist or colonialist connotations. If anything, they are taking a sign and divesting it of the nuanced meaning that it held.
If you believe they are condoning racism or colonialism, realize it is YOU who is instilling the symbol (festival goers with headdress) with that meaning. With the act of appropriating the symbol, the festival goer has not committed an act of racism. It is wrong to accuse a culturally ignorant festival attendee of racism simply because they wore a headdress.
But, what if they know it is against the wishes of someone who venerates their indigenous cultural traditions and doesn’t want anyone wearing the headdress outside of their tradition?
It is still not racism. If one believes their right to wear it overrides another’s objection, it does not mean they believe they are somehow endowed with an intrinsic superiority over someone else. They may be insensitive but you should not label them racist.
Lets use a hypothetical situation to illustrate the point. Lakota #1 strictly follows tribal traditions concerning the headdress and he won’t wear a headdress, not even an imitation one. Lakota #2 wants to wear a tourist headdress to the music festival so he does. You cannot call Lakota #2 a racist against Lakota #1 for wearing it. They are the same race. It’s just that one chose to ignore the traditional use of the headdress.
Call out #8:
Wearing a headdress by a non-native somehow celebrates the genocide of Native Americans.
There is no logic to assume someone would wear a war bonnet because they support the “mass murder” of Indians. It’s not worthwhile to try to mind-read people when you have no such powers. And, I don’t think it necessary to accuse people who mean no harm.
Since when does the headdress represent Native American genocide? It’s not like wearing a modern symbol of hate like a swastika.
This also brings us to an important issue that deserves its own lengthy call out….
Call out #9:
The claims of genocide against Native Americans.
There is debate on whether or not the US committed genocide against the native peoples of America. I have provided lots of links if you want to dig into the facts.
“To sum up, European settlers came to the New World for a variety of reasons, but the thought of infecting the Indians with deadly pathogens was not one of them. As for the charge that the U.S. government should itself be held responsible for the demographic disaster that overtook the American-Indian population, it is unsupported by evidence or legitimate argument. The United States did not wage biological warfare against the Indians; neither can the large number of deaths as a result of disease be considered the result of a genocidal design”. –Guenter Lewy
Was smallpox used as a biological weapon against Native Americans? (The rest of the commentary regarding genocide is from the writings of bruhaha).
“The evidence is more complicated than a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No.'”
“Did anyone ever deliberately plan to use smallpox to kill off at least some Indians? Yes.
Were such plans ever carried out? Maybe.”
“Were there NUMEROUS cases of this? Doesn’t look like it.
Was there ever any standing policy to do so? No evidence of this, and some evidence AGAINST it.”
“And there are also many cases of individual and government efforts to PREVENT the spread, to help the suffering, and finally to eradicate the sickness (once a vaccine was discovered).
“There is one well-documented case from 1763, in which the British general, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, in correspondence with discussed using infected blankets to try to kill a group of Indians (allies of the French) during the French and Indian War. We do not know for sure whether the plans were carried out. (Also, very curiously, these plans were only discussed in POSTSCRIPTS to letters, not in the body…? What’s with that? An afterthought?”
While no existing evidence supports that this attempt was successful, a preponderance of documented evidence suggests that the smallpox among the natives preceded the exchange, was contracted from a different source, and the attempt to “inoculate” the recipients, Turtle’s Heart and Mamaltee,was unsuccessful.
“The definitive work on the history of the effects of smallpox on the American Indians is the 1945 book, The Effect of Smallpox on the Amerindian by E. Wagner Stearn, Ph.D. and Allen E. Stearn. It discusses this story and other possible attempts to deliberately infect Indians.
“More recently, Ward Churchill has made much greater claims. He claims that an 1837 smallpox outbreak was deliberately planned and carried by the U.S. Army. This outbreak has been widely been believed to have been (like MOST cases among the Indians) accidental. In fact, Churchill cites the works of Thornton and Stearn & Stearn to support his claim. But Thornton himself says Churchill is misrepresented what he wrote, and others have pointed out that Stearn & Stearn contains no such claim for this instance.”
“Further analysis of Churchill’s claim undercuts both this specific claim and his more important accusation, that the U.S. government was carrying out a POLICY of attempting to kill of Indians (that is, true genocide) by deliberately spreading smallpox. (See especially Guenther Lewy’s article:
“In fact, as Lewy notes, beginning with Jefferson in 1801 (quickly picking up on a recent breakthrough in this area) there were efforts to inoculate AGAINST smallpox, and these efforts included Indians!
“(Stearn & Stearn document the vaccination efforts at greater length, as well as stories of those who, before the discovery of a vaccine, risked their own health and safety to help those who suffered.)”
“The story of the treatment of native Americans is a sad one without having to make it worse with dubious or trumped up charges. It is also unfortunate that, in the midst of the accusations, acts of kindness and heroism — efforts to help and save — are overlooked. Note the CONCLUDING paragraph to Stearn & Stearn’s work:”
“If, in the foregoing pages, some facts have been stated which incriminated the white conqueror’s and settlers, the history is replete with instances of great heroism and devotion of large numbers of white men throughout the centuries, who labored to alleviate the sufferings of, and finally brought the protection to, the conquered people through vaccination at their own trouble and expense ”
Call out #10:
War, Torture and Rape
It has become fashionable to depict whites as the villains of the Indian Wars. The story is far more complex.
Since the dawn of time, people have been at war over resources and honor. It was no different in North America where traces of the earliest humans go back some 14,000 years. The ancestors of today’s Native Americans immigrated into North America. As each wave came, they fought and slaughtered or pushed out those before them—stealing their land. In more recent histories almost every Indian tribe had a culture of war and a history of conquering and stealing the land of other tribes.
Not only were Indian tribes at war with one another long before the arrival of the whites, they were often allied with whites against other tribes during the 300 or so years of Euro-Indian conflict.
The violence that took place on both sides is truly horrifying. Indian tribes were often not the peaceful, nature loving hippies of recent stereotype but were brutal warriors who slaughtered innocent people (men, women and children), kidnapped, tortured, mutilated and gang raped. Some of the tribes practiced cannibalism. And, many of them seemed to hold torture in high regard.
Indians were known to impale women on rough-cut stakes, or cut their heel tendons and leave them in the wilderness. One of the Comanche’s favorite techniques in torture was to cut off the victim’s eyelids and bury him up to his chin in the blazing sun. Another was to stake him out spread-eagle on top of a bed of red ants, after first removing some of his more private parts, putting them in his mouth, and sewing his lips together.
More on torture:
The Native Americans massacred more people than their white opponents. A massacre is a specific incident in which a military force, mob, or other group kill many people—and the perpetrating party is perceived as in total control of force while the victimized party is perceived as helpless or innocent. Some massacre estimates of the recorded atrocity’s from 1511 to 1890 come to 7,193 dead Indians and 9,156 dead whites.
Ultimately the American Indians lost. As was customary for 14,000 years in North America, the conquerors acquired the land. Indeed, the conquered usually lost territory and/or got assimilated or they moved to some other place. It’s the nasty business of being conquered in that day and age.
Yes, there is much more to the story and even though the Native Americans suffered greatly because of European cruelty and duplicity, they were hardly innocent, angelic victims. No side emerges with completely clean hands.
Wear an Indian Headband
If you want to try to avoid the controversy wear a feathered headband. Men and women traditionally wore the woodland Indian headbands for their beauty. The number and type of feather did not usually have special symbolic meaning. You may still offend some confused person who claims feather wearing is reserved only for Native Americans but at least you avoid some of the other nonsense.
I need to wrap this up….
As you can see, the issue of wearing an imitation Native American headdress at a music festival is an enormously complex issue. Wrapped into it are false claims of genocide, racism, and attempts to create villains and guilt. I have barely scratched the surface.
The war bonnets original use and meaning has evolved over the last 180 years of cultural appropriation. Modern traditions and/or norms regarding the headdress are not even standard among the various Native American tribes.
Should these discrepancies of adornment (i.e. when, where, who and under what conditions) be just as important an issue as whether or not a non-native incorporates the bonnet into their festival regalia with their own set of interpretations for its meaning?
Does any single tribe get to dictate a headdress tradition for all other tribes (or the world) to follow?
I don’t know the answers but the debate ranges from offensive to defensive to indifference to sarcastic to emotional and everything in between. The easiest thing to do is take off the headdress so you don’t offend someone.
Ah, but where does it stop—-the fear of offending others?
Native American Headdress – Music Festival Goers
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