In An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdress, Âpihtawikosisân outlines the nature of cultural appropriation and how it relates to the wearing of the headdress, a significant cultural symbol. The headdresses that are typically appropriated in popular culture are the war bonnets, important ceremonial regalia worn by warriors and chiefs. Apihtawikosisân further emphasizes where the line falls between appreciation and appropriation by suggesting ways in which Native culture can be celebrated. Cultural appropriation is the unauthorized use of another culture’s restricted symbols. These restricted symbols collectively refer to artifacts,sacred objects, intellectual property and so forth. Cultural appropriation is problematic because it not only homogenizes a diverse group of people, but also perpetuates stereotypes and belittles customs.
One of the foremost arguments that arises during discussions of cultural appropriation is that many symbols and aspects of other cultures (often in reference to white cultures around the globe) are appropriated. The issue with this argument is that it overlooks the pervasive pattern of taking without permission that Native Americans have faced. Cultural appropriation is often especially harmful when the source group is a minority that has been historically oppressed. The wearing of headdresses by non-natives reflects the salvage paradigm, whereby indigenous people are a dying culture and in need of “saving”. In this case, the saviours of the dying culture choose which aspects of the culture to maintain. Although people may claim to be showing appreciation by donning the headdress, they are effectively choosing which aspects of the culture to showcase and in this case demonstrating an ignorance of the significance of the symbol.
Last summer the Bass Coast Music Festival in Squamish, British Columbia chose to ban headdresses from the festival. Organizers of the festival, which takes place on native land, cited that the ban on headdresses was “…about us respecting our community,” and that “We felt we wanted to respect our hosts and our neighbours.” This action was certainly admirable, but does this step nullify the precedent of taking and cultural appropriation from Native cultures that we clearly see exhibited by the use of headdresses as a fashion accessory?
It is vital to take into consideration the larger picture of racial violence and settler colonialism. Settler colonialism resulted in monumental injustices against Natives including taking of indigenous lands and assimilation through the implementation of residential schools. When removed from historical context, the inappropriate use of the headdress may seem like a relatively small injustice, however it mirrors the historical patterns of taking and oppression that Native Americans have faced. These colonial logics– taking, conquering and dominating land, bodies, symbols and traditions- are reflected in the practice of employing the headdress as a fashion accessory.
One commentator on Apihtawikosisân’s letter draws attention to an important point regarding the use of headdresses and its intersection with gender. Andrea Rosenberger uses the example of scantily clad models who are native women wearing the headdress and suggests the title of the letter should extend beyond non-natives in addressing the harmful effects of appropriation. Headdresses are typically reserved for men and it is rare for women to don them. When women have been given the honour of wearing a headdress it is not in the context of a fashion accessory. The commentator suggests that this lack of respect for sacred items within the native circle is particularly disappointing since it serves as a reminder that there has been some success in the efforts of colonialists to assimilate Native people.
When people use these cultural symbols as fashion items and begin to think of indigenous people as a costume it is dehumanizing, particularly for a population that fights everyday for the right to identity formation free from outside interference. This dehumanization often leads to violence and again we can see this reflected in historical attempts to assimilate indigenous people into the ways of western culture that were prominent at the time. In an attempt to restore dignity and make amends for the injustices natives faced (although not an exhaustive list) Canada has provided public apologies and a federal $1.9 billion compensation package for those forced to attend residential schools. However, despite providing these many reparations to Indigenous people, does that fully mitigate the damage caused by such extensive racial violence?
In looking back to the Bass Coast music festival, does the act of banning the headdress truly express a “respect for our community, hosts and neighbours?” and is it an adequate act of justice for the historical discrimination faced by these communities? Cornell West reminds us that justice is what love looks like in public. Âpihtawikosisân articulates in her letter that using the headdress is not a demonstration of love and appreciation because those wearing it have not taken the time to understand the cultural significance of the symbol. Wearing it in a lingerie fashion show, to a festival or on the cover of a magazine denigrates the symbol and demonstrates a lack of respect; and without respect there cannot be love. An important question to explore is what would justice for Natives look like? Is it enough to simply draw attention to and dissuade the practice of cultural appropriation or is there more we can do to exemplify love and thereafter justice?
Âpihtawikosisân. “An Open Letter to Non-Natives in Headdresses”. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 March 2015. <http://apihtawikosisan.com/hall-of-shame/an-open-letter-to-non-natives-in- headdresses/>.
Lederman, Marsha. “B.C. music festival’s headdress ban strikes a cord.” The Globe and Mail, Vancouver, 30 July 2014. Web. 8 March 2015. < http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/bc-music-festivals-headdress-ban-strikes-a-chord/article19868165/>
CBC News. “A history of residential schools in Canada.” CBC News Canada, 16 May, 2008. Web. 8 March 2015. <http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/a-history-of-residential-schools-in-canada-1.702280>