Something to Think About

"I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love."
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why it is not alright to wear a feathered headdress as a fashion statement.

In the United States, we have a terrible history of mistreating indigenous people.  Well, alright.  We have a history of mistreating any people who are different from us in any way - but back on topic. Our European ancestors, instead of trying to live alongside the native people already living here, took the land they wanted and forced the indigenous people out or slaughtered them. There's no nice way to put that. We didn't bother to learn about who they were. We didn't bother to find things we had in common. We just didn't trust them because they were different.  We are not alone in this behavior, of course.  I'm just writing about what I know best and I'm am most familiar with the shameful behavior of my European ancestors here in the US.

I'm going to digress a little here, but please bear with me.  One of my favorite movies is a musical called Holiday Inn.  Made in the 1940s, it stars Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby and the song White Christmas was written for it. It has some glorious song and dance numbers that I just love to watch.  It is also a deeply flawed movie and it is hard to watch some of it.

The problem I have with the movie is the way the people of color are portrayed. For starters, there is an African American cook at the inn named -wait for it - Mamie.  She is the stereotypical black "help" character of that era right down to the way she speaks.  The worst part of the movie and what bothers me the most is the blackface number that Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds perform.  (If you don't understand what is offensive about blackface, then I suggest you educate yourself.) I still watch the movie because of the wonderful music and dancing but it reminds me of how things used to be and that we have improved since then - at least in some respects. (and I'll admit that I have to fast-forward through the blackface Abraham number as I just can't watch it.)

The other day, I saw something that I think is just as offensive as someone performing in blackface. I am ashamed to admit that I didn't think of it that way at first but the more I thought about it, the more wrong it seemed.  It was a picture of a woman at a music festival wearing a feathered headdress. It was similar to the Sioux warbonnet in the image on this post. At first I thought that, since the festival was in the UK, she may just not be aware of the how offensive it could be to Native Americans.  Then I was told that people wear them in the US as well!  I wanted to believe that this was an anomaly but the more I looked around the internet, the more I realized that this is actually a trend.  People are wearing these headdresses like a fashion accessory all over the place!

Let's examine this situation a little bit more.  The problem with blackface is that one is representing a particular group of people as if they are all the same happy-go-lucky, somewhat stupid, characters and not real living human beings.  Well, that and you're implying that they aren't good enough examples of themselves so you have to blacken your face to show them how to do that the right way or something.  But the problem is the stereotypes that we reinforce - like Maime in Holiday Inn and the "darkies" played in minstrel shows.

The stereotypical Native American is the sort that we see in old westerns.  They run around with feathers on their heads, their faces painted.  They speak like Tonto from the Lone Ranger.  They are shown as uncultured, wild, war-hooping, murderous savages. These stereotypes show the indigenous people the way that they might have been perceived by our ancestors.  They do not represent the reality of who these people really were and certainly do not represent the indigenous people who live in the US today.

There are modern tribes in the US today. Their members don't run around wearing headdresses and war paint.  They dress like everyone else.  When they do don ceremonial dress such as headdresses (and not all tribes have that tradition, by the way) and special clothing it is generally for ceremonies and, many times, spiritual reasons.  These are items that can have deep meaning to them. In many tribes, you have to earn the right to wear certain articles.

When a person of European descent puts on a headdress and/or warpaint it is offensive and demeaning. Remember that the Europeans killed so many of these indigenous people and forced them to give up their land and move west into what they called Indian territory.  Over time, that territory became smaller as the invaders claimed more and more land. Now descendants of the people who committed these atrocities are appropriating these garments and using them as fashion accessories! This is just so wrong!

Even if you aren't of European descent, you don't get a pass.  You haven't earned the right to wear them and no, you are not "honoring" Native Americans by wearing them.  They'd rather you didn't. (Don't believe me? Check out some of the resources I list below.)

So, please. Let's do our part to educate people about this issue.  It is not cool to wear these items. They are not fashion accessories.  They are items that have deep meaning to the people who wear them as part of their cultural traditions.

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You can find out more about this subject by reading the articles I have listed here.
What's wrong with my headdress?
But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?
13 Rock Stars Who've Worn Native Headdresses (There's nothing wrong with writing to these stars and educating them about how wrong it is, either.  Just saying.)

Image found here

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