Before I can begin this article on cultural appropriation, take the headdress off or stop with whatever the Indigenous fad is you have just decided to bastardize. Our identity isn’t decorative and no, you don’t get to cherry pick who we are to assist in the latest club fashion accessory.
Donning any piece of Indigenous Identity without understanding which Indigenous Nation it belongs to, or the cultural practises that go with it, is to continue the process of colonization and cultural erasure. The moment you put on a piece of Indigenous identity for decorative purposes you propagate misinformation and solidify your position as a colonizer. Colonization has many facets of oppressive stratagem. One of those components is the continued erasure of Indigenous Identity to fully complete assimilation. In order for Canada and the USA to exist in their current state, these civilizations needed to be built over the ruins of the old. Since Indigenous Nations still exist, colonization is still ongoing.
(First, because someone is going to ask, Indigenous means that all people are Indigenous somewhere on the planet. It doesn’t just mean Native Peoples living on Turtle Island; Indigenous Nations are found throughout the world. For this article I will state and re-state: Indigenous to North America/Turtle Island. Or (when noted) the world.)
Origins of Colonization
There is widely accepted miseducation that has been burned into the consciousness of North Americans about what an Indigenous Person in North America is. Often these misperceptions are based on one of two caricatures.1
The first is the ‘Noble Savage’; stoic, simple minded, peaceful, patient, in balance with nature, deeply communicating with the harmony of the spirits. The second is the Godless, crazy, bloodthirsty savage. Both of these ideas are incredibly racist. They promote perceptions of a people who are frozen in time, who never evolve. Each idea actually oversimplifies the diverse Nations, different viewpoints, history, perceptions and understanding of life that are found across North America into one very basic group of people that is in dire need of ‘enlightened’ transformation, but not all Indigenous peoples are the same.
The question is, what do you really know about Indigenous Peoples? What do you know about Indigenous Nations? Generally, for most people in North America, knowledge comes from three main sources; the “Indian” summer camp, Hollywood films, and history books/class. Each of these sources are racist and ill-informed. They all perpetuate the idea of the simplistic Noble or Godless savage. When observing a group of people and their history, if it’s not portrayed as complex it’s most likely wrong.
Colonization isn’t simply the colonization of a country, a Nation’s land; it’s colonization of the culture. That’s what you get when you perpetuate falsehoods or appropriate from Indigenous people. And when you’re perpetuating falsehoods about Nations, you are not attempting to accept, understand or support those Nations’ customs. You’re colonizing their unique way of life and thinking by imposing your own, or a false doctrine.
We don’t all have the same creation story. We don’t share the same ceremonies. We don’t all speak the same language. Traditionally, Nations provided for their people differently; we weren’t all fisherman, farmers, hunters, or trappers. Our governance systems are different from Nation to Nation.
The adjective of ‘savage’ dehumanizes people and, in terms of the historic colonial agenda, it is a mandate to kill. The mass slaughter and genocide of Indigenous peoples in North America was based in the ideology of colonizers branding Indigenous folks as worthless savages. The noble savage, although non-human, could and should be taught by any means necessary, whereas the Godless savage was simply meant to be extinguished from the face of this earth.
These routes ultimately led us down a path of erasure; not just cultural erasure but annihilation. We see many examples historically of genocide carried out by colonizers2. It’s easier to liquidate diverse Nations when you convince the population they are just one of the same. That ideology still haunts us today, which is why you get references to a headdress in places they don’t normally wear headdresses. For example: Coachella.
I should also point out that there are commonalities between Indigenous Nations found within Turtle Island. We have expression through art, including music, dance, and theatre. We have a language, tons of jokes, and cultural traits (depending on the geographic location). We even have a method to teach the old to the young, and these commonalities often stretched throughout the planet to other ethnicities, Nations and peoples.
We are also diverse people with different customs, traditions and understandings.
We’re complex people with complex histories. Most settlers, and all colonizers, cannot grasp this reality. When challenged with our truth, our identity contrasts their belief, so they retreat back into an idea of us that is overly simplistic and misguided.
We don’t all pray to the same God. Some nations traditionally don’t really believe in One omnipotent creator of all things. I’ve sat with some cultural carriers in the Mohawk Nation that believe “One Creator of all things”, “A Father God” is a colonial ideology and construct. Not all Mohawks or Peoples that are Haudenosaunee believe this, mind you. Not to say they believe in Polytheism, either. Nor are they atheists. You might be confused at that last statement and that might make you think that those Mohawk people are also confused. I assure you they are not; they just believe in something else entirely. We can file this under an Indigenous conceptualization of the world, or to be more specific, a Mohawk concept. A lot of these concepts may differ from your own. Most, if not all, Indigenous Nations in North America, never oriented themselves in the world within the spectrum of settler-colonial ideals. We have our own unique viewpoints and understanding of life and have incurred a great debt to receive these teachings.
I have to constantly restate this to white people and colonizers because they just don’t get it. We don’t all have the same traditional practises and we don’t all dress the same, either. We’re not all the same across the continent and even within one specific Nation you’ll find some diverse ways of being. Siksikaitsitapi and Lakota/Dakota peoples are people who lived on the plains, hunted buffalo, interacted and traded with one another, developed a universal plains sign language and have the Sundance, which is a yearly ceremony, but the traditional practises of the ceremony are vastly different. Siksikaitsitapi and Lakota/Dakota people have their own style of the ceremony, but the story of how it came to be is different. Learning one thing about a people or Nation does not grant you any rights to speak for or on behalf of that Nation, nor any Nation. I cannot stress this enough.
#Hardfact: 99% percent of what you learned in school about Indigenous Peoples and their history in North America is wrong. That 1% is gracious; you might have been taught the correct name, but there’s a good chance the name is spelled wrong and pronounced wrong. There’s plenty of examples of Indigenous Nations around North America being branded with the wrong name.3 Forget what you were taught in school about the pilgrims and the ‘Indians’; it’s all wrong because its written from the perspective of the colonizers.4
Problems arise from a lack of education and, more importantly, lack of interaction with Indigenous Peoples from North America. The more exposure you have, the more you begin to understand how little you really know and see the depth of the vast knowledge even one Nation holds. You can spend a lifetime in ceremony and only ever scratch the surface.
Can you admit how little you really know of Indigenous peoples … even if they are your neighbours, attending the same school as you or your children, or even if your city lies within driving distance to a place where you can get cheaper gas, cigarettes and fireworks?
Indigenous Peoples always have to be at 100% and fully researched when defending against the avalanche of bullshit theories that most white folks, and all colonizers, present. The sad tragedy is the unwillingness to learn, especially when facts challenge those theories.
We showcase holes time and time again, but most white people, and all colonizers, still hold onto their theories as if their very lives and existence depend on them. Holding on to these flawed misconceptions leads to justification for cultural appropriation and, ultimately, cultural erasure. To explain, let’s look at some specific misconceptions about Indigenous Peoples, reasons for flawed claims of consent for appropriation, and the consequences of believing and perpetuating beliefs and ideologies that are false.
Erroneous Belief: Indigenous Origins in North America
“But your people came here across the Bering Strait.” Translation: all Indigenous Nations found within North America came from one group of people speaking one language.
Not counting the Nations colonizers eradicated, there are over 600 registered and recognized tribes5 in Canada with about 60 different languages found within 12 language families6, plus 2 language isolates (found in British Columbia).
As of “July 2018 the United States’ Federal Register issued an official list of 573 tribes that are Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs,”7 with 150 different Indigenous languages spoken in the United States.8
Some of these Nations and language carry over the medicine line (United States/Canadian Border).9
Joanna Nicholas, a linguist, has stated that it would take about 50,000 years for the diversity of languages to be created and evolve from that one language.
Geologist believe the Bering strait was only passable between the time periods of 10,000 – 12,000 years ago. This means there are about 38,000 to 40,000 years that are unaccounted for that are required for the number of diverse languages that existed among Indigenous Peoples in North America to evolve.
Alternatively, if groups came in waves about 35,000 years ago it means we’re still missing between 23000- 25000 years.10
Where did all those years go for the language to diversify into approximately 150 different languages? Does time run at a different speed for the Indigenous Nations in North America? You can literally sail the Mayflower through this gigantic hole of an inconsistency. Still, colonizers hold onto this belief, which is nothing more than a colonial credulity despite the contradictory evidence.
Presumed Consent: “But my ‘Indian’ friend said it’s okay and did not have a problem with it.”
For instance, if your ‘Indian’ friend says; “Don’t worry about rocking a headdress at the club or rock festival, it’s cool!”
I really hope you at least know the name of your friend’s Nation and don’t call him your ‘Indian’ friend before engaging in Indigenous practices without understanding them. For example, unless you’re a politician and this is a practise of Nation building, on the plains headdresses aren’t simply gifted; they are earned and it may also take you a lifetime to understand the relevant story or stories and the responsibility required before you are gifted one.
Even when they are gifted to a politician in the the hopes of maintaining a healthy Nation to Nation relationship, controversy still happens.11
If you’re justifying yourself with, “My Indian friend says it’s okay,” there is an ideological inconsistency here. If—and this is a big if—they know and understand the practises and protocols of their people, they would know that you can’t just put a headdress on or give the okay for some store-bought shit. This dishonors countless generations of tradition. If your friend still say it’s okay, that person is completely out of touch with their own people and ideologically not Indigenous.
What gives me the right to state this? Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot/Blackfeet) people have their own style of headdress, which is different than the common headdress you see at sporting events, which can be rooted back to the Lakota/Dakota people. Other nations within the plains can claim the headdress existed with them originally and I won’t argue. I don’t know the story of how that particular headdress came to their people. What I do know is that the Lakota/Dakota Peoples had relations with the Siksikaitsitapi Peoples and at some point in history they gifted to our people both their headdress style and also their style of ceremony for gifting headdresses. To oversimplify what is a complex ceremony, but showcase a commonality between the Lakota/Dakota and Siksikaitsitapi Peoples, you have to earn the headdress.
Misapplying Cultural Evolution
“Cultures Evolve,” says the colonizer who doesn’t know or understand which Indigenous cultural practise they are ripping off, but who wants to justify their actions.
There is a bit of truth laced within that sentiment; cultures do evolve, but not in the context you are trying to create. This selfish context is constructed to allow you to don the item and show it off to all your club friends without doing any of the work to earn it. Some people have historically earned a headdress, for example, through great acts or deed. Most white people, and all colonizers, tend to think of an ‘Indian’ brave earning his/her headdress through killing the enemy or scores of enemies, but that’s a partial truth.
Bravery has many forms and what is of equal relevance to killing enemies can be doing what’s best for the community. That doesn’t mean taking lives; it could be saving or extending the life of a person or leading the way to peace between warring nations. We also honor our own for the deeds they do in their personal life, knowing the service it can provide for others. A recent Siksikaitsitapi graduate who became a practising doctor for his people was awarded a headdress. So before you claim cultures evolve ask yourself what the fuck am I doing in service for this Nation and these people?
Claiming Heritage: “But, my great grandmother was a Cherokee princess or an Indian princess.”
My immediate response to this is, are you at all connected to the Nation and the people? If not, why aren’t you reaching out to reconnect? This should be more important than claiming an identity you have no real interest in integrating into your life just so you can paint your face or wear a headdress. My immediate thought, however, is that your ancestor probably wasn’t even an Indigenous Person from North America, and most likely a slave owner, but for some reason none of you colonizers like to claim that part of your own family history.
Subscribing to False Prophecies
“But the rainbow warrior prophecy.”12 This does not allow you a shortcut through traditional practises; it is not a passkey for you to extract or do whatever you want. The prophecy is a load of crap, but if it is true the second half of that prophecy is that you all lead your people back to Europe. So, if you believe in this prophecy, book them travel tickets and head home.
“But my Ancestry Test says I’m X percent Native American.” You can have all the Indigenous blood in the world and still not be connected ideologically. Nations have responsibilities and protocols to honor and maintain their identity, and unless you are an active part of that specific Nation’s practise you’re just speaking out of your ass. Blood doesn’t equal knowledge. To absolve yourself from cultural practises by using Indigenous blood is to weaponize your Indigenous blood and when you do that, you reduce all your history to nothing.
Blood quantum only exists in its relation to Indigenous peoples to complete the process of Identity erasure. Indigenous nations constantly married out to neighbouring Nations, because we knew that incest was a terrible thing; it’s innate knowledge within most cultures of the world, except for the British monarchy. We had people leave or join our Nation. We didn’t see people as ½ Siksikaitsitapi ½ Dene; your parental side was acknowledged but you became part of the community you were in. This is Nationhood; on the Plains in order to live with us you had to follow our practises and protocols. Canada, under the Indian Act, validates Indigenous peoples through blood, but because you have to marry out our blood quantum begins to dissolve over generations. The sole reason for blood quantum is for an Indigenous person to reach less an ¼ Indigenous blood; then the government doesn’t recognize their Nation status. Once all the people of that Nation are out, the government can take the land without a fight, without lawsuit, without force. It’s an old twist on the fabled prima nocta law.13
Colonizers often use the Japanese or Asians whenever they want to showcase to People Of Color what they can achieve if they just try as hard as the Asian people. They try to justify cultural appropriation this way, by saying, “Appropriation isn’t a thing for the Japanese.” They have a country and a home base to reconnect to whenever they want to go home. This is in contrast to Indigenous Peoples in North America, whose homelands and reservations are currently being dissolved and assimilated into the mainstream Canadian/American identity. Cultural appropriation may or may not be an issue for Japanese or Asians, but at its very core it’s a racist practise to tokenize one group of people to validate your moot point. The deeper question is, why do you think that nation of people, which has different customs, traditions and people, invalidates the issues of other Nations with different customs, traditions and people? This isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Appropriation For Profit
There is money to be made through the exploitation of forced inclusivity for Indigenous regalia. Generally, white people and all colonizers will make money off selling a headdress or boost their social profile by donning one for a photo shoot/Club/Festival. Does this money find its way back to the Nation or the people who have been subjected to colonial enforced poverty? To Nations which have a history of being exploited for resources by colonizers?14 No, it often does not.
And it’s not to say most of our cultural practises on the plains are exclusive; I’ve seen many members of outside nations of all colours helping out at our ceremonies and celebrations, only after they have been invited in. You have to invest time within the Nation to find that inclusivity; these things aren’t just given out. I always (and am finding this to be true of a lot of other Indigenous folks in North America) tend to question why a white person is at our events. Are they there to make money off us or are they really trying to repair something broken inside themselves? It’s not just seeing things through the lens of prejudice but through an historic lens of good faith that is constantly trampled in the mud. Non-Indigenous people wearing a headdress, or defending people that do, does nothing to help ease concerns about cultural abuses.
Becoming Real Allies
Where are you during the marches and rallies for the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women?15 What are you doing to advocate and amplify Indigenous Peoples’ concerns on this matter? What do you know about the current rates and reasons why Indigenous Women going missing? How are you educating your friends, family and coworkers on this struggle? Because I can tell you right now we need more voices amplifying our messages and doing this without co-opting and taking over our issue.
Are you an ally? Or are you a co-conspirator, or do you just want to be decorative without the struggle? My people have survived genocide and ongoing colonization and with every day that passes and every ceremony we attend and every Indigenous word we learn, we more than earn the right to tell you how to respect us. All you have to do is shut the fuck up and be thankful we are giving you a modicum of our time to explain it.
This might be a bit harsh, but allow me to offer this olive branch.
I invite you to attend a pow wow, a round dance, an MMIW gathering. Begin the process of learning. It’s a journey and it’s not going to be easy, but it is worth it.
We, as Indigenous Peoples, are already making a positive change for our people, and you can be part of it. You can help us work towards the protection of our people and remove a lot of the mystery, stigma and misguided ideas you have of us. Education and lived experience is the antithesis to racism and racist practises.
But, if you’re not contributing to the re-education about Indigenous Peoples then you are contributing to misinformation and, ultimately, to the continued cultural erasure of all Indigenous Peoples, which is a dick move, colonizer and no, you don’t have a “Tribe” and you sure as hell aren’t a part of mine. So let go of the things from Indigenous culture you’ve decided to commandeer or bastardize.
Take the headdress off, or we will take it off for you.