Advocacy & News, Awareness & Unlearning

Why You Should Stop Co-opting Indigenous Culture

Culture is not an aesthetic, it isn’t a theme or a vibe, it’s not a costume or a trend. Culture is about heritage, pride, survival, resiliency, life-affirming connections — and it’s hugely significant. It’s rich, vibrant, and nurtures vital lifeways. Culture is the preservation and celebration of the past, the present and the future. It’s not, and never should be, something that’s picked apart, stripped of all its meaning, homogenized and sanitized to be used by those it does not represent.

It has been made abundantly clear that co-opting someone else’s culture or notable cultural items, that’s devoid of any understanding of their importance or substance, doesn’t hold any honour or respect. The excuse, for example, that dressing up as a Native American for Halloween or wearing a headdress is a way to honour Indigenous People is as disingenuous as it is insulting. It’s fake reasoning that ultimately aims to silence any objection by intimating that Native Americans should be grateful for the further destruction and colonization of their way of life.  

Heritage Blankets by Thunder Voice Eagle & Sackcloth + Ashes use their artwork & designs to highlight & support grassroots community programs

Some of you reading may feel that this summation is too harsh. What harm could wearing regalia, a headdress or Native costume at a party or festival really do? Well, the answer to that lies in understanding how we got to a point where non-Native people believe that using entire, diverse groups of people as logos, mascots, festival fashion pieces or holiday-themed ensembles, etc, is acceptable. The answer lies, if you’re willing to look, in acknowledging that colonization has normalized the perception that taking whatever it is that you want from Native Peoples, no matter how culturally significant, is somehow justifiable.

Incorrect ownership or use of any cultural item, especially those only reserved for notable people, places or events, must be avoided. It’s a particularly hostile type of privilege that creates a belief that you have the right to access things not meant for you. At various times throughout U.S. history, Native languages, religious dances, songs, ceremonies, and the practices, lands and objects associated with them were outlawed. It wasn’t until 1978, for example, that the right of Native Americans to practice their particular traditional beliefs was protected by the Indian Religious Freedom Act — a law that seems to be more theoretical than practically applied.

A perfect example of how non-Native people contribute to co-opting Indigenous culture — in a way that removes meaning and quietly subverts traditional knowledge — is the Chilkat robe once owned by the Jacobsen family of Seattle, USA. Usually made by the Tlingit, Tsímshian and Haida Peoples of Alaska and British Columbia, the robe was bought to hang on the Jacobsen’s dining room wall because they liked the look of it. It remained there for decades before they came to learn that it was actually a sacred clan ceremonial piece that would normally get passed down from generation to generation. To their credit, and this doesn’t happen enough, they returned the robe to the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau so that it could be reclaimed by its rightful kin.

All My Relations (a podcast run by Matika Wilbur & Adrienne Keene) discuss Indigenous people presenting, curating, & exhibiting themselves with Jami Powell (Osage), Jaclyn Roessel (Diné) and Kristin Dorsey (Chickasaw)

Buying something without taking the time to know exactly what it represents simply because you have an appreciation of its beauty or for the people to whom it belongs does not negate our responsibility to act with integrity. It’s a sign of our privilege that we think our good intentions or our own aesthetic desires outweigh the importance of protecting Indigenous spiritual and cultural lifeways. If you really want to show your admiration, buy from Native-owned stores so that you can learn about what you’re purchasing and take the time to ask if it’s appropriate for you to have it and how it should be used or displayed. Express your affection by coming from a place of learning.  

It is okay to find our stuff beautiful, because it is. It is okay to admire our cultures. However, 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, out-dated stereotypes of Pan-Indian culture. Chelsea Vowel | âpihtawikosisân

As for wearing a Native American headdress, this is something that is particularly egregious if used by someone who has not earned it or been given permission to do so. It’s not a fashion item. It’s a celebrated and distinguished cultural symbol that is often reserved for important and influential people — a select few — who have acquired it through great acts of strength, bravery and honour within their community. Even if it’s a non-Native made reproduction or cheap dress-up version, the significance of it cannot be separated from what it symbolizes. The lack of care and understanding about headdresses is compounded by the fact that the version that is often on sale is an imitation and amalgamation of what some Plains Nations wear. There are many different types of headdress worn by the 574 diverse and distinct Native Nations that exist in the United States — all of which have significance and meaning. If you say you’re honouring Native Americans by wearing a headdress to a party or music festival, which Nation are you celebrating? How do you teach others about what it represents whereby wearing it yourself further removes it from its true context? The information about how this is offensive and damaging has been around for a very long time so I’m afraid any attempt at rationalizing this kind of abuse comes from either a place of willful ignorance or outright lies. It’s time to listen and change our behaviour.

Eighth Generation (Inspired Natives, not “Native Inspired”) curate & sell a wide range of Indigenous creator’s artwork — including these earrings by Sarah Agaton Howes — that support various causes

The same goes for dressing as a Native American for Halloween. The fake buckskin and braids you can buy to go trick-or-treating are based on harmful stereotypes that have deep dehumanizing historical roots. The costumes themselves are also usually hyper-sexualized and seem to focus on the fetishizing of Native men and women — made especially disturbing when you consider the fact that Native American and Alaska Native women face the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. (with a collective majority of this violence being perpetrated by non-Natives). Wearing these types of costumes just needs to stop. There should be no place in 2020 where this level of objectionable commodification still exists.

If you want to show your admiration for Indigenous People and their culture, it’s okay to seek out clothing, jewellery, shoes and artwork, etc that’s been designed and made by them specifically to be shared — Native creators want to see people cherish their work (some of which I have included in this article). Positive, authentic, knowledgeable and respectful representation is welcomed but it’s not up to us to decide what that looks like. Making a mistake is okay because you can correct it, even if you’ve spent a long time making it. You can always choose to do better once you’re made aware that something you’re doing is harmful to other people — there is real honour in that.

Further Info:

Think Before You Appropriate: A Guide for Creators and Designers – Simon Fraser University

Native Halloween Costumes Are Offensive, Support Native Designers Instead – Teen Vogue

How To Be an Ally to Native and Indigenous People – Vice

If you enjoy reading Transatlantic Notes and would like to show your support for the work being done, please consider making a small donation. Thank you.

25 thoughts on “Why You Should Stop Co-opting Indigenous Culture”

  1. Information, descriptive! I loved the way you explained why we shouldn’t disrespect culture for a cheap halloween costume. Culture is so much more than that. It signifies someone’s identity —there’s needs to be sensitivity towards it. Some level of respect.

    I really enjoyed reading this article. You are so eloquent with your words.


  2. Interesting read

    Too many people want to be new, different and unique.

    Not enough love for the past, heritage and history


  3. I personally hate seeing anyone taking advantage or mocking other cultures. I hate seeing kids dressed by their parents as ”cowboys & indians” etc. It’s not on and it’s not welcome in modern society.


  4. This was a thoughtful and well written post. Thank you so much for covering this topic and for including resources and encouragement to buy art directly from Indigenous creators. Taking the time to ask how to use or display items, or if it is even appropriate to do so is important to be mindful of, as you mentioned. The artwork and jewelry I’ve purchased directly from Native artists, who I could talk to about their work, added a deeper richness to the pieces and made them more meaningful to me.

    I’ve read other articles along similar lines about the popularization of images such as Frida Kahlo and her work. Her images are used to sell clothing, shoes, bags, posters, and all sorts of other products. Yet, Kahlo herself was anti-capitalist. Her image on a t-shirt may evoke feelings of strength and represent feminism to people who buy and wear them. But how many will go beyond the fad to really learn more about the woman, her political views that led her to join the Mexican Communist Party, and the deeper meaning of her art?

    It is easy for me to feel conflicted over this issue (about collecting and enjoying art, not Halloween costumes). I love art and wish to support artists. What happens after the artist has died, and their work continues to be commercialized, such as Frida Kahlo’s? Although I would love to wear a pair of tennis shoes printed with a Frida Kahlo design, I’m not sure it’s appropriate.


    1. I agree that buying directly from Indigenous creators provides a better understanding and connection to what it is you’re gong to be taking home with you. It also allows us to learn something and walk through life with much more purpose and reciprocity than just take, take, take because we feel entitled.

      I’ve noticed many items with Frida Kahlo’s image on it, and I see, as you do, the possible message of her poltical and artistic power is somewhat lost. I think if it’s something she herself would be against then that needs to be addressed.

      There’s a clear line between celebration (or as mentioned in this post the idea of “honouring”) and taking something and removing all context. I just wish more people would be as considerate of this as you are — thank you for sharing your comment and your perspective!


  5. I think it’s so sad that we have to continue having these conversations and reminding people that dressing up as Native Americans, “smudging”, or ripping off Indigenous designs is wrong.

    Thanks for providing some sources to buy from Indigenous creators!


  6. Thank you for sharing this. I think people need to be a little more sensitive when it comes to other culture. Wearing their costume just for fun and without even knowing any background about it is disrespectful.


    1. So many of my dear friends, and people I consider family who are Native American have been so hurt by seeing people dress up as them. Costumes just live off stereotypes and mock them. I’m hoping people will finally listen and understand this. Thank you so much for reading.


  7. Firstly this is so informative 👏 👌 🙌 and secondly you explained everything perfectly 😊😊😊😊 I enjoyed reading your post and learned a lot,thanks😊


  8. I totally agree! It reminds me of White America’s creepy hero worship of Cinco De Mayo with the ponchos and everything. Thanks for spreading the word!


  9. This was so well put, and I love how you mentioned visiting stores owned by people from the culture so you can truly educate yourself and decide if what you’re wanting to do falls in the appreciating or appropriating culture category. It’s a shame that people still need to read this regarding things like Halloween, in 2020 there’s so much knowledge at our fingertips there’s really no excuse x



    1. This is exactly how I feel about it all, that there is literally knowledge at our fingertips! This has been discussed, researched and studied by numerous Native Nations and many other people. It’s been widely shared so there really is no excuse for still being unsure about what culture is or how it is important to those who are trying to protect it. Thank you so much for reading!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s