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