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Why You Should Stop Co-opting Indigenous Culture

Someone else’s culture is not an aesthetic; it isn’t a theme/vibe, costume or trend to be picked through, borrowed from or used. Rich, vibrant and vital Native American and First Nations lifeways preserve and celebrate their past, present and future; appropriating them is highly offensive and absolutely needs to stop.

It’s been made abundantly clear that co-opting notable cultural items that do not belong to you is staggeringly disrespectful. Dressing up as a Native American at Halloween, for example, or wearing a headdress is no way to honour their culture (this is frequently the excuse given). Taking something that is hugely significant to Indigenous People and making use of it in a way that does not preserve or carry forward its tradition is destructive — it’s basically colonization 101.  


Some of you reading this may question what harm could really come from wearing regalia, headdresses or Native-style costumes to a party or festival. The answer to this lies in recognizing how we got to a point where non-Indigenous people believe that using entire, diverse groups of people as logos, mascots, festival fashion pieces or holiday-themed ensembles, etc. is acceptable. The answer is found through acknowledging that colonization has normalized the perception that collecting whatever it is you desire from Indigenous populations; 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 distinctly hostile type of privilege that fosters a belief you possess the right to access things not meant for you. At various times throughout U.S. history; Native languages, religious dances, songs, ceremonies, objects and other cultural practices associated with the land were outlawed. It wasn’t until 1978 that the right for 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 or First Nations people appropriate 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. Traditionally made by the Tlingit, Tsímshian and Haida Peoples of Alaska and British Columbia; the robe was purchased to hang on the Jacobsen’s dining room wall because they liked the look of it. It had remained there for decades before they came to learn it was in fact a sacred clan ceremonial piece that would normally get passed down from generation to generation. To their credit; which 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.

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

Obtaining an item from another culture without taking the time to recognize exactly what it represents; simply because we hold an appreciation for its beauty or 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 good intentions or our own aesthetic desires outweigh the importance of protecting Indigenous spiritual and cultural lifeways.

If we genuinely want to express our admiration, buying from Native-owned stores so that we can learn about what we’re purchasing; including whether it’s appropriate for us to own, and how it should be handled or displayed is the only way to go about this. The most authentic expression of admiration should invariably come 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 via âpihtawikosisân

As for wearing a Native American headdress; this is something that’s 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 reserved for important and influential people — a select few — who have acquired it through great acts of strength, bravery and honour within their communities. The traditional significance of a headdress cannot be separated from what it symbolizes; even when it’s a non-Indigenous reproduction or cheap dress-up version.

earrings by Sarah Agaton Howes
Eighth Generation curate & sell a wide range of Indigenous creator’s artwork that support various causes — including these earrings by Sarah Agaton Howes

This lack of care and understanding is compounded by the fact that what’s typically on sale amalgamates/imitates headdress styles from Indigenous Peoples of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. It treats distinct and diverse nations as a homogenized group to create marketable consumption. If wearing a headdress to a party, festival or photo shoot, etc. “honours” Native Americans; which nation is being celebrated? How do we teach others what it represents when wearing something like this further removes it from its true context? The information about how this is offensive and damaging has been around for a very long time; any attempt to rationalize this kind of harmful appropriation comes from either a place of willful ignorance or outright lies. It’s time to listen and change our behaviour.

It’s equally problematic to go dressing as a Native American for Halloween; the fake buckskin and braids purchasable to go trick-or-treating in are based on harmful stereotypes with deep dehumanizing historical roots. The costumes themselves can also be hyper-sexualized; focusing on fetishizing Indigenous men and women; all the more disturbing when considered alongside the fact that Native American and Alaska Native women face the highest rates of rape and sexual assault in the U.S. (the majority of which is perpetrated by non-Natives). Wearing these types of costumes needs to stop; there’s no place where this level of objectionable commodification should be allowed to exist.

If we want to show our admiration for Indigenous People and their culture; we’re allowed to seek out clothing, jewellery, shoes and artwork, etc. that’s been designed/made by them to be shared. Native and First Nations creators want to see people cherish their work (some of which I have included in this article). 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 we can correct it; even if we’ve spent a long time making it. We can always choose to do better once we’re made aware that something we’re taking part in is harmful to other people — there’s real honour in that.

What changes can you implement to make sure Indigenous culture is not appropriated?

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

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. I really enjoyed reading this post and I completely agree with you! I loved that you mentioned that if you want to support and show admiration for Indigenous people then you should look into supporting their work by buying clothing etc. made by them that is designed to be shared!


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


  9. 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!


  10. 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!


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