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