To those of you who wear native headdresses/feathers to look edgy or cool, I am here to say that what you are doing is offensive act called cultural appropriation. In the article written by Apihtawikosisân, a Metis woman, she notes that celebrating and supporting a culture is perfectly fine but it’s when you start using a culture’s restricted symbols that you cross into the realm of appropriation (apihtawikosisan.com). Cultural appropriation is when a group of powerful people exploits the culture of a less privileged or minority group. It is often done with little understanding of the latter’s history, experience, and traditions. Many groups are victims of cultural appropriation, but none have been more exploited than the Indigenous Peoples.
Subsequently, to understand cultural appropriation you have to understand where it came from: colonialism. When European explorers came to North America, they colonized the land, claimed the resources for their own, exposed the Native peoples to disease and racism, and forced them to submit to the demands of the white man. The effects of colonialism can be seen throughout history as the Canadian government has created Acts and laws in the attempt to make the Indigenous race civilized, and integrate them into white society. The government attempted to “fix the Indian problem” by sending Indigenous children to residential schools run by the white churches (Fleras 2010). The main goal of the schools were to assimilate the children into white society and “kill the Indian” inside, thus thousands of young children were subjected to physical, psychological, sexual, verbal, and spiritual abuse (Fleras 2010). Assimilation is when a minority group is integrated (by choice or by force) into the dominant group culture; the assimilated group loses aspects of their own culture and heritage as a result (Fleras 2010). The Indigenous people went through centuries of trauma and suffering, but unfortunately the media and popular culture fails to mention that in any statement about Indigenous people.
Going back to Apihtawikosisân’s article, she states that “headdresses are restricted items in the Plains Nation and are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them” (apihtawikosisan.com). These restricted items are a staple of the media’s outdated image of Indigenous People. The Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Washington Redskins, Pocahontas, Tiger Lily from Peter Pan are all examples of the Imaginary Indian created by the media. The Imaginary Indian is the image projected on the Indigenous people by non-native cultures, containing very little truth and being mostly about that with which the non-native population wants the word ‘Indian’ to be associated (Crosby 2002). Unsurprisingly, pop culture uses ceremonial headdresses in most interpretations of Indigenous people without the understanding of its history and importance. As Apihtawikosisân says later in the article, “individual choices do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols” (apihtawikosisan.com).
A recent example of individual choices leading to cultural appropriation is at the 2015 Milan fashion week. Canadian brothers, Dan and Dean Caten, showed off their women’s line titled ‘Dsquaw’ and offended a lot of Indigenous peoples in so doing. Squaw is a racial slur used by colonists to insult Indigenous women, and using it in such a commercial way glosses over the fact that it’s an incredibly derogatory term.
Another comment about the line is that the brothers stated that they were “inspired by the enchantment of Canadian Indian Tribes” (www.ctvnews.ca). While it’s wonderful to admire Indigenous culture and want to showcase it, the brothers combine all Indigenous peoples into one group; this line is saying that all Indigenous people dress this way. Apihtawikosisân’s comment on this kind of appropriation was: “I think it is reasonable to ask that if you admire a culture, you learn more about it. Particularly when the details are so much more fascinating than say, outdated stereotypes of Pan-Indian culture” (apihtawikosisan.com). They use their own white privilege to decide what defines native clothes and then take credit. This outlines my main problem in the fashion line, which is that the brothers knew nothing of Indigenous culture and history, and they were simply using parts of the culture they liked to further their own fashion careers. I personally found it quite appalling when I first saw the line name, a racial slur in an international fashion event. Unbelievable! This type of coverage is why many people believe dressing up as ‘Indians’ or wearing headdresses is cool or part of a trend. As posted on the website My Culture is Not a Trend (2013) being seen as “trendy” makes an entire culture not only a commodity, but also something that people will tire of; therefore being viewed as disposable. Culture appropriation makes light of the troubles that Indigenous peoples have faced and creates an unrealistic image of them that the public can throw away when they get bored.
While cultural appropriation is an ever-constant problem in today’s society, you as a consumer and as a member of society can reject these appropriations of Indigenous culture. The easiest way is by supporting legitimate and unrestricted items crafted and sold by indigenous peoples, these items include moccasin, mukluks and native art.
Finally, if you have appropriated someone’s culture, the best thing is to admit that you didn’t know and apologize if necessary. This acknowledgement is a step on the path to mutual respect and understanding.
Apihtawikosisan.com,. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses’’. N.p 2015. Web. 7.Mar. 2015
Crosby, Marcia. “Construction of the Imaginary Indian.” Academic Reading: Reading and Writing in the Disciplines. Peterborough: Broadview, 2002. Print.
Ctvnews.ca. “Dsquared2 Slammed Online For ‘Dsquaw’ Fashion Line”. N.p 2015. Web. 9. Mar. 2015.
Fleras, Augie. “Aboriginal Peoples in Canada: Repairing the Relationship” Unequal Relations. 6th ed. Toronto: Pearson Canada, 2010. Print.
Mycutlureisnotatrend.com. “A Dialogue About Cultural Appropriation”. N.p 2013. Web. 8. Mar. 2015.