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This open letter was originally published in 2012 on apihtawikosisan.com and was adapted from another longer article, also on that site. It is republished here with permission in response to the recent cover of Elle UK, which features American hip-hop artist Pharrell wearing a headdress.
I see you are confused about what constitutes cultural appropriation. I would like to provide you with resources and information on the subject so that you can better understand what our concerns are.
However, I also want you to have a brief summary of some of the more salient points so that you do not assume you are merely being called a racist, and so that I do not become frustrated with your defensive refusal to discuss the topic on those grounds.
If at all possible, I’d like you to read the statements on this BINGO card. If any of those have started whirling through your head, please lock them in a box while you read this article. They tend to interfere with the ability to have a respectful conversation.
- Some items are restricted items in specific cultures. Examples from Canada and the United States would be: military medals, Bachelor degrees (the actual parchment), and certain awards representing achievement in literary, musical or other fields.
- These items cannot be legitimately possessed or imitated by just anyone, as they represent achievements earned according to a specific criteria.
- Yes, some people will mock these symbols. However in order to do this, they have tounderstand what the symbols represent, and then purposefully desecrate or alter them in order to make a statement. They cannot then claim to be honouring the symbol.
- Some people will pretend to have earned these symbols, but there can be serious sanctions within a culture for doing this. For example, someone claiming to have earned a medical degree (using a fake parchment) can face criminal charges, because that ‘symbol’ gives them access to a specialised and restricted profession.
- Other items are non-restricted. Flags, most clothing, food etc. Accessing these things does not signal that you have reached some special achievement, and you are generally free to use these.
- If you do not use these items to mock, denigrate or perpetuate stereotypes about other people, then you can legitimately claim to be honouring those items.
Headdresses in Native Cultures
For the most part, headdresses are restricted items. In particular, the headdress worn by most non-natives imitate those worn by various Plains nations. These headdresses are further restricted within the cultures to men who have done certain things to earn them. It is very rare for women in Plains cultures to wear these headdresses, and their ability to do so is again quite restricted.
So unless you are a native male from a Plains nation who has earned a headdress, or you have been given permission to wear one (sort of like being presented with an honorary degree), then you will have a very difficult time making a case for how wearing one is anything other than disrespectful, now that you know these things. If you choose to be disrespectful, please do not be surprised when people are offended…regardless of why you think you are entitled to do this.
Even if you have ‘native friends’ or are part native yourself, individual choices to “not be offended” do not trump our collective rights as peoples to define our symbols.
Try real celebration instead of appropriation
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.
You do not have to be an expert on our cultures to access aspects of them. If you aren’t sure about whether something is restricted or not, please ask someone who is from that culture. If people from within that culture tell you that what you are doing is disrespectful, dismissing their concerns because you just don’t agree, is not indicative of admiration.
If you really, really want to wear beaded moccasins or mukluks or buy beautiful native art, then please do! There are legitimate and unrestricted items crafted and sold by aboriginal peoplesthat we would be more than happy to see you with. Then all the nasty disrespectful stereotyping and denigration of restricted symbols can be avoided, while still allowing you to be decked out in beautiful native-created fashion.
If you are an artist who just loves working with aboriginal images, then please try to ensure your work is authentic and does not incorporate restricted symbols (or perpetuate stereotypes). For example, painting a non-native woman in a Plains culture warbonnet is just as disrespectful as wearing one of these headdresses in real life. Painting a picture from an archival or modern photo of a real native person in a warbonnet, or in regalia, or in ‘street’ clothes is pretty much fine. Acknowledging from which specific nation the images you are using come from is even better. “Native American” or “Indian” is such a vague label.
Miyo-Wîcêhtowin, Living Together in Harmony
It’s okay to make mistakes. Maybe you had no idea about any of this stuff. The classiest thing you can do is admit you didn’t know, and maybe even apologise if you find you were doing something disrespectful. A simple acknowledgement of the situation is pure gold, in my opinion. It diffuses tension and makes people feel that they have been heard, respected, and understood.
If you make this kind of acknowledgement conditional on people informing you of these things ‘nicely’ however, that is problematic. The fact is, this issue does get people very upset. It’s okay to get heated about it too on your end and maybe bad words fly back and forth. My hope is that once you cool down, you will accept that you are not being asked to do something unreasonable.
Remember that BINGO card above? It demonstrates how not to go about the issue. You and I both know this issue is not the end of the world. But it is an obstacle on the path to mutual respect and understanding.
Thanks for listening.