We recently featured a female STAPAW model wearing a feather headdress in a tattoo photo shoot. The vast majority of STAPAW supporters loved the tattoo photo shoot. However, we received 6 particularly obscene emails from viewers who were irate at our photo shoot. They claimed it was cultural appropriation and was by default racist. The STAPAW movement working to allow tattoos and piercings in the workplace by default offends some people, but it's our firm belief that merit based employment is imperative to cultural growth and development. Controversy is a war zone we call home. We believe standing against destructive views far outweighs appeasing a select few viewers, so here is our public response.
The STAPAW staff member writing "Indian Headdress Cultural Appropriation | Facts and Response" is part native American Indian and his father grew up on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state.
Cultural Appropriation Definition: "Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture."
ARGUMENT #1: Cultural appropriation in fashion is bad.
The idea that only a certain ethnicity, culture, heritage or nation can wear an article of clothing is dangerous. It implies we cannot appreciate other's fashion, styles or ways. If this standard was applied evenly across the board, the French invented the tie, so should only the French wear ties? Leopard print clothing is from Africa, high heels are from Persia, and Egyptians were the first to use nose rings, and the Mayan civilization was the first recorded civilization to stretch their ears, and thus should they be the only ones to do so? The concept of modern tattoos is said to come from Polynesia, and the word "tattoo" is Polynesian. Were Japanese explorers responsible for cultural misappropriation when they brought tattooing to Japan? Were European sailors culturally misappropriating when they tattooed their arms? Better yet, can only Japanese use Irezumi tattoos, can only Arabs have Arabic tattoo script, can only American's use a tattoo machine since it's an American invention? Western fashion designers borrow much of their fashion from India and China, so to be fair most of the jewelry and much of the clothing used in modeling couldn't be used if we applied the same logic. People who decry cultural appropriation in fashion at best do so selectively and at worst are blatant hypocrites.
ARGUMENT #2: The feather headdress is unique to Native American Indian culture.
The freedom to appreciate and adopt various types of dress and fashion is great. Our whole movement is based on tattoos and piercings which is all about individuality and uniqueness. Hundreds of cultures throughout history wore feather headdress headwear. European cultures including the Vikings, Roma People, Celtic, Druids, Romans, Greeks and more wore feather headdress adornment. It is not rude or inconsiderate to wear a Indian headdress anymore than it is rude or inconsiderate for a native American Indian to wear a button up shirt which was invented by the English. If a Native American Indian wore a Renaissance period costume to a Renaissance festival it would not be cultural misappropriation, it would be them having fun and dressing different than the societal dress code box that some might place on them. If a model wears a warbonnet headdress it is not cultural misappropriation, it is having fun and dressing differently than the societal dress code box that some might place on them.
ARGUMENT #3: Cultures should be kept separate.
We're a melting pot. We're a conglomeration of everyone's cultures. Hopefully, as a culture, we adopt positive elements and discontinue negative elements. To be blunt we don't adopt the practice of scalping our enemies, which not all Indians did, and Indians don't adopt the practice of handing out smallpox blankets, which not all Americans did. However, there are plenty of positive ideas, inventions, fashions, cultural elements, and values that hopefully cultures can recognize and adopt. If a modern native American Indian wants to wear a button up shirt to work and if a black or white American wants to wear a feather headdress to a modeling shoot or a concert there's nothing intrinsically offensive about that or cultures in general adopting other's styles.
ARGUMENT #4: The feathered Native American headdress held spiritual meaning
Only a very small fraction of tribes actually attributed any spiritual meaning to their Native American headdress. A modern parallel would be people wearing the Catholic rosary with their outfit solely for fashion. Much like the Catholic rosary has specific amount of beads, specific sizes and certain sequences, an Indian headdress with spiritual significance had specific feathers, specific patterns, specific beads, and specific designs. The feather headdress we used is completely different than those designs. Our feather headdress was made in the UK by an Indonesian native and was an artistic blending of Indonesian and American styles, but is not a replica of spiritual styles. The only similarity is that they both have feathers, but they are not the right color, breed, or length of feathers worn in a spiritual Indian headdress. That would be like someone wearing a beaded necklace and another person saying because it is similar to a rosary because of its similar elements (beads) that it's disrespectful to wear. No one culture can claim sole authority on headdresses, necklaces or any other article of clothing. Most feather headdresses sold today do not mirror spiritual headdresses in any way other than both headdresses had/have feathers.
ARGUMENT #5: The Indian headdress was an earned male rites of passage, and thus shouldn't be worn by non-males who didn't earn it.
They were a status symbol and only males wore them. A warbonnet was proof of manhood and was added onto with acts of bravery and acts in war. Thus, the line of thought goes, our model wasn't a man, didn't have a sanctioned act of bravery and wasn't a warrior so she hasn't earned the right to wear it. Well, a fully decorated boy scout uniform is something that takes years to earn. If you or a Native American Indian or anyone else wore that for fun no one would be offended, and no one should. You are not falsely impersonating a boy scout, you are just having fun. It's easier to argue that the Indian headdress was misogynistic because only males could wear them, than it is to argue that it's offensive for a non-male or non-Native American to wear a Native American headdress. (Also, we don't think the Indian headdress is misogynistic or that it's sexist to have male and female headdresses/clothing within a culture.) It's like telling someone you can't wear a crown because you didn't earn it since you're not Miss Universe or Queen Elizabeth.
ARGUMENT #6: The Indian headdress wasn't just clothing, it was ceremonial, and thus shouldn't be worn outside of a ceremony.
Specific feathers and headdresses varied in meaning across tribes for various ceremonies. A wedding dress is also ceremonial in nature for arguably the most significant life event besides birth, yet if someone in a foreign country wore a wedding dress for a photo shoot or wore it as a costume it wouldn't and shouldn't be offensive "culture appropriation."
ARGUMENT #6: You shouldn't offend people.
It is absolutely impossible to not offend everyone. Take for example tattoos and piercings. Tattoos and piercings are offensive to some and to others it's offensive that they're not able to show tattoos and piercings. We are lucky to live in a country where we have freedom of expression and dress and the liberty to be honest and to offend and appreciate each other's differences. The alternative is a segmented society separated by differences by sensitive factions forcing their opinions and preferences on others, while we walk on eggshells.
Wearing a Spanish flamenco dress for a party doesn't make you racist and isn't cultural appropriation. Wearing moccasins around the house doesn't make you racist. It would be more easily argued that taking offense to that makes you thin skinned. What may personally annoy me is not the rubric for what another person should not do. We should be too absorbed in our own convictions and practices to be concerned about the practices of someone else. What they do doesn't undermine the significance and meaning of what we do or wear.
If our model is 20% Native American Indian should she be allowed to wear 20% of the feather headdress? Hopefully, our reply on culture appropriation was thought provoking. You're always welcome to participate on any of our posts and say anything you want in support or in question of what we do. We believe free thought and the open marketplace of ideas is to be protected at all costs while most current culture believes "being nice" while avoiding questioning decisions and avoiding offending people is paramount.