Cornell West reminds us that that justice is what love looks like in public. It is difficult (perhaps impossible) to see any justice in acts of cultural appropriation if love is most generally understood as respect and consideration of another’s ideas, feelings, needs, and wants. In her piece An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses, Âpihtawikosisân offers insight into the harmful effects and surrounding injustices of wearing cultural symbols without respecting their significant social meanings.
Âpihtawikosisân writes about certain cultural items (one of which is the headdress) being restricted symbols largely for men who have earned the associated respect and honour those symbols command. These restricted symbolic items are attached to significant social meanings and those who have not earned the privilege to wear a headdress should not be doing so. She claims there are other symbols and items that reflect Indigenous or Native culture that are ‘unrestricted’ in nature, however they too must be used and honoured in a way that does not mock, denigrate, or perpetuate stereotypes. A statement in which Âpihtawikosisân effectively communicates this idea is: “individual choices ‘not to be offended’ do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols”. This echoes the respect and consideration that is at the basis of a definition of love and justice. Even though a non-Native individual may not understand the symbols and their meanings, that does not remove the responsibility to be conscious of the rights, ideas, and voices of other people.
It’s important to note that Indigenous restricted symbols are appropriated regularly. The appropriation (the unauthorized taking of traditional knowledge, meanings, and artifacts, and expressions) is a repetitive, systemic pattern that continues today. Here is a list, certainly not a complete one, of celebrities that wore headdresses from 2008 to 2014. Even though events in 2008 had some negative responses, six years later the same images appeared on the cover of a major magazine, Elle UK. Additionally, in many instances women are wearing these headdresses that are typically reserved for men, and portrayed in a highly sexualized way (like Karlie Kloss in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show). Despite the lengthy processes involved in these celebrity representations, with multiple levels of approval and stages, the inappropriateness of the use of restricted symbols does not appear to be discussed, which highlights an institutionally embedded ignorance of the meaning of these symbols. Symbols are selected at will and removed from the cultural context and meaning they should be acknowledged within.
Âpihtawikosisân draws a comparison between the use of restricted symbols from dominant Canadian and American cultures versus Indigenous cultures. Symbols like military medals or university degrees are understood as being earned, and even if someone disrespects one of these symbols they do so to make a statement and acknowledge their meanings and context. Moreover, the potential criminal sanctions of incorrectly or unjustly using these dominant cultural symbols are starkly contrasted to the continued use of Indigenous or Native restricted symbols, with ultimately no repercussions. Power structures are at work here and ultimately, just as seen through the celebrity use of cultural symbols with no severe consequences, colonial logics are repeated. While wearing a headdress may appear as a relatively innocent act, one group in society continues to seek to conquer and rule over another through taking and dominating cultural objects, symbols, and traditions, as well as land, bodies, environment, and natural resources. Ignoring the importance and meaning of these cultural symbols, further exploiting and altering any sacredness that surrounds them, disseminates a token representation of an entire culture that is removed from a wider historical context.
One common reaction or defence that I’ve encountered, as well as Âpihtawikosisân mentions in her “Cultural Appropriation Bingo” card, is that other countries appropriate things from America and that white people experience racism too. Even the comments on her piece mention that European/Western ‘restricted symbols’ like King, Knight, Pope, and Soldiers are frequently ‘appropriated’ and that Indigenous people should also be aware other cultures that are ‘trespassed against’. I think that an extremely important aspect that is overlooked by this position is the historically rooted, systemic inequality and discrimination that Indigenous and Native populations have, and continue to, endure. Assimilation and the desire to erode and eliminate traditional cultures and beliefs is a reality for Indigenous peoples, and while even if aspects of dominant groups in North American society are taken up by other minority groups, they remain in a position of power. European and Western cultures continue to hold institutional power and dictate official policies in the North American context that Âpihtawikosisân is referring to.
Instead of appropriation, celebration is encouraged. Celebration entails genuine learning and recognition of another culture instead of simply saying you are admiring it without taking the time to understand the larger context and meanings behind symbols like the headdress. Appropriate terminology should be used to represent cultures in an accurate way that is not just vague and perpetuates stereotypes that are out-dated. Stereotypes of an ancient and homogenous ‘Indian’ only perpetuate the harmful concept of the Imaginary Indian. Placing the only ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ indigenous peoples in the past eliminates the present experiences and voices of contemporary indigenous peoples because they are seen to be of a dying culture. This results in continued dehumanization of minority populations that allows for further violence and injustice to be committed because there is no accurate or respectful understanding of Indigenous or Native cultural practices, symbols, ideas, or needs.
Âpihtawikosisân. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses”. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 March. 2015. <http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in- headdresses/>.
Smith, Erika W. “14 Celebrities Who Caused Controversy By Wearing Native American Headdresses: Pharrell, Karlie Kloss, Harry Styles, Lana Del Rey and More”. Fashion & Style. 5 June. 2014. Web. 9 March. 2015. <http://www.fashionnstyle.com/articles/20593/20140605/14-celebrities-who-caused-controversy-by-wearing-native-american-headdresses-pharrell-karlie-kloss-harry-styles-lana-del-rey-and-more.htm>.