Yes, Christina Fallin, A Woman in a Headdress IS a Beautiful Thing – An Indigenous Woman

So, some of my friends *cough, Eva, cough* remember when I used to be pretty militant about cultural appropriation – in ways that I am not now. I was offended by things like Urban Outfitter’s now-infamous Navajo-panties, and felt that the widespread use of “Native” patterns and faux-Native “beadwork,” as well as the illegal and inaccurate use of tribal names and traditions, represented the bastardization of Native culture by the colonizing white man, and, with, perhaps good reason, did not appreciate this.

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screenshot from urban outfitters website

My fashionable friends will, I think, be glad to know that I no longer take such a strong stance on the issue. While I obviously disagree with the above, patterns that I personally label “Arizona,” or, “Desert,” or even, “Southwest,” are pretty dang cute, and as long as designers aren’t blatantly stealing Native designs and mislabeling them, I’m a lot more okay with the Arizona style, and to be honest, I kind of have to be – there’s no point in being irritated every time I walk out my front door.

I’ve even given up my stance on girls not wearing moccasins. I used to feel that people who wore moccasins were would-be pretenders who wanted to dress-up Native. Now, I believe that they are fashionable people enjoying a style that many people have worn for centuries. You go, stylish, warm shoe people. You go.

However, there are some issues where I cannot see myself budging. One is the issue of dressing up as an Indian for Halloween.

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Another is the problem of Native American mascots, such as the Redskins, which are about as racially insensitive as a team dressed up in blackface called the n**gers.

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These are heady topics which will one day make great blog posts in and of themselves, but I’m not here today to go into detail with them. What I would like to talk about is the third issue upon which I don’t see myself ever budging: non-Native people taking up Native Regalia. While I would dislike anyone of any gender doing this, it’s among non-Native women where the problem is the most pervasive, so I will mainly focus on non-Native women wearing Native regalia.

First, I need to tell you what regalia is, and what differentiates it from patterns (like Arizona) that can be commodified by all. Regalia is the sacred outfit worn by the Indigenous of North America. Items on a person’s regalia can include beadwork, feather fans, leather, minks, ermine, and otter fur, breastplates made of bones, necklaces, chokers, wristbands, scarves, tomahawks, staffs, scarves, special patterns and face-paint, masks made of cedar or other kinds of wood, rings, moccasins, and more. While no one of these items makes up the regalia in itself, when put together and worn as a whole, they create a sacred outfit.

I don’t think non-Indigenous people should stray from wearing all of these things, but what I’m talking about is context – within the context of the dance, when all is said and done and put together, the outfit becomes sacred. It represents more than the sum of its parts.

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hummingbird beadwork I made for my sister, Shana’s, regalia.
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sis dancing in a powwow

So, there are some items of regalia (scarves, rings) that can be worn by non-Natives. But there are some that cannot be. Eagle feathers, for instance, can only be owned and worn by Native American people, who use them for sacred, cultural purposes. And headdresses, which have traditionally been used in Native American societies for highly sacred and ceremonial purposes, should not ever, under any circumstances, be appropriated by the non-Indigenous.

Enter the Governor of Oklahoma’s daughter, Christina Fallin.

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publicity photo for Christina Fallin’s band, Pink Pony

Christina Fallin is a beautiful woman wearing a beautiful headdress, made of fake feathers, no less. But, while Fallin grew up in Oklahoma, and claims to have been richly influenced by the Native American spirituality of the place, she does not have the right to don the headdress. She does not understand what it represents. This much is evident from her official statement, which reads more like a defense.

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Christina Fallin’s press release, accessed from Indian Country Today Media Network

The problems with this letter are so magnified that when I read the post on Indian Country Today Media Network, I knew I had to chime in with an opinion. You see, what Christina is doing is seeming to relate to Native American spiritual values without recognizing that the spiritual values of Native people do not exist on a continuum or across the board. Every tribe, every people, every place, has a differing set of values. There is no one “Native American” tribe, there are many, as many as 500 nations. What Fallin is addressing is her perception of Native American spiritual values, which she most likely gets from the media more than from actual contact with Indigenous people.

Also, when she speaks of “embracing” something, she seems to be rebuking those who would tell her not to. Like, oh, wow, how did we never think of that? Have we been living in the stone age? Thankfully, we have Fallin here to tell us the right way for our cultural items to be utilized. How dare we insist that sacred things be kept sacred, and not used for press releases or money-making schemes. or to further personal interests/beauty?

As intersectional, feminist blogger Jonathan Steinklein notes:

This daughter of the governor of Oklahoma is trying to justify wearing a sacred headdress for her band by just saying it is beautiful. Understandably, it is pretty, but fashion is something that consumes everything in its wake and regurgitates it with no meaning whatsoever. Just to say something is beautiful or pretty isn’t an excuse to wear something sacred, there are plenty of other pretty things that don’t have religious value to them.

Also, her justifying wearing the headdress because she lives in Oklahoma is doubly insulting. She may have had many experiences with Native Americans but she is a White woman. No matter how much interaction she has with Native people her whiteness is apparent in a White supremacist society. That cannot and should not be ignored and that is specifically what is happening here.

To directly paraphrase from the Indian Country Media Today Article, there are many tribes in Oklahoma in which women do wear headdresses, to include the Kiowa Tribe. A woman, Summer Morgan, “will wear a war bonnet belonging to a male [sic] relative as part of the scalp and victory dances Summer Morgan, an enrolled member of the Kiowa Tribe, will wear a war bonnet belonging to a male relative as part of the scalp and victory dances as done by the Kiowa Black Leggings Women’s Auxiliary.”

Morgan explains that war bonnets are only owned by men. Each feather represents a “war deed” that they have accomplished, which are not bragged about.

A way for those deeds to be acknowledged is a woman—be it their mother, their daughter, their sister, a niece—they’re given the right to wear war bonnets so that these men can be honored,” said Morgan. “By being given the right, there’s prayers that are said. It’s explained to each of these girls who are given this right what’s expected of them when they wear it, how to treat these war bonnets. What not to do and what they are allowed to do when they are wearing it. You can’t just pick it up and wear it. You can’t go and pick up anybody’s war bonnet. It has to be somebody from your family. There are dances, there’s songs and there’s times of the year where it is acceptable for women to wear war bonnets.

What Morgan explains is that not only are women not allowed to own or wear bonnets (with the exclusion of Chief status), they can wear their father, brother’s, etc. This is where I would like to chime in as a feminist and take this post in another direction. I don’t like that only men are allowed to own and wear headdresses. Many Native American societies, to include the Navajo, are matriarchal, and Indigenous populations have always acknowledged the importance of women as life-givers. So why are men the only ones allowed to don the headdress? Don’t women also accomplish great deeds?

I would push against the idea that only men can wear headdresses. I don’t believe this is an authentic Indigenous belief, but rather, a belief imposed by the colonizing culture that enforced strict gender roles where before, there were none. I would argue that yes, a woman in a headdress IS a beautiful thing: a Native American woman.

However, it is not for Christina Fallin, or Lana Del Rey, or Victoria’s Secret models, or any other White woman in a headdress, to fight for this right for us. It’s for Native women themselves to claim and reclaim, if we want it. And I want it. And I intend to.

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13 thoughts on “Yes, Christina Fallin, A Woman in a Headdress IS a Beautiful Thing – An Indigenous Woman

  1. pretty soon we wont be able to use feathers on our arrows to hunt with, we may desacrate a feather with blood.i also grew up in OK. wore headress as a little kid playin cowboys and indians.this is silly.stop the whinin

  2. Your insights on this are well-tempered and well presented. I agree with you that Fallin “[S]he does not have the right to don the headdress. She does not understand what it represents.” While not illegal this choice is one of in appropriation for commercial gain and attention. And coming from a state rich in Native history–displacement, etc., if she were properly educated, she’d know better. Thank you for helping educate the rest of us. – Renee

  3. I appreciate your reasonable arguments and encourage your push for greater female recognition and participation. Indigenous Australians exist in a remarkably similar situation. Balancing the sacredness of the historic culture with modern society requires careful consideration and respect. Recently a fuss was made by an indigenous Australian over the use of certain traditional painting techniques by the winner of a national portrait competition. Personally I thought the painting was respectful and honoring of their style, and I do not understand the offense from what I have seen and read.

  4. Because it is just ‘how it is done’ in certain cultures, like how in many, women owned everything, except a man’s headdress, if he had one, and his weapons, and maybe his best pony. The house was hers, the children hers, everything was hers. But when people defend the actions of people like Fallin, they are furthering the colonialist notion that we do not own ourselves, our culture, or our images. They will tell us when to be insulted, and if we are insulted anyway, we’re just being ‘too PC’ or ‘whiners’ who need to ‘get over it’. No one tells the Jews to ‘get over’ Hitler, or Americans to ‘get over’ Pearl Harbor or 9/11, but Natives are expected to be quiet, meek, and docile about the ‘atrocities of the past’ that DO continue today, including the further theft of every little scrap of ourselves we have left to us.

  5. Do Christian’s ask nonchristians to stop wearing anything that is a cross or anything that resembles it. Do ancient cultures of Eastern Europe ask people to never wear anything that resembles their embroidery or cultural outfits? No they don’t because it’s just not that big of a deal and wearing Indian garb of any sort souldn’t be a problem either rather considered a compliment. How sad that a group of people can turn something like this into another alienating situation instead of considering it as a source of acceptance and admiration .

    1. Sorry not sorry but that metaphor is idiotic. Christians are the ones who colonized N. America and forced assimilation. Now they want to appropriate sacred symbols that are considered highly honoring and exclusive even in Indian Country? Note that I didn’t say all use of Native garb is wrong. But this is not only wrong, it’s shameful, much like your comment. Maybe instead of leaving such remarks on an Indian woman’s blog when she’s trying to share a cultural POV that is not your own, you close your mouth and listen. Not even tolerating talk like this anymore. Misty out.

  6. I think eventually you may come around on this as well as it becomes apparent that native North Americans are not the only culture to wear feathered headdresses and, of those other cultures, the sacredness of the headdress is not the same.

    I absolutely love the design of the fabulous feathered headdresses worn by women in the Caribbean countries and Brazil during the Carnival celebrations. They are also more than happy to share the spectacular costumes with others not of their heritage in a generous spirit of global fraternity. Perhaps the North American native people who continue to cling to their dogmas will one day join in the sharing of rich cultural heritage that does not remain static, but evolves over time. I realize the relative newness of the North American colony means this tender issue may not be resolved for some time, but I hold out hope that there will be a softening of this stance and no hard feelings anymore.

    1. You’re right- it seems that a headdress does not mean the same to every culture. However, having sacred spiritual beliefs is not “clinging to dogma.” I notice you called what the Carribean women wear “costumes.” Native Americans don’t wear costumes, they wear regalia, and it’s sacred, and it’s meaningful. In all of my global fraternity, I am so happy to share many, many things with you – my beadwork, which I have taught to many non-Natives, leatherwork, necklaces, paintings, and aspects of culture and artwork. Some things are not to be shared because they are more than costumes. I’m sorry if I offended you with my strong response. I can’t appreciate where you’re coming from. I don’t think that hard feelings has anything to do with certain sacredness. But in other areas, non-Natives are very welcome – to come on Canoe Journey, to attend Powwows, sometimes to even attend ceremonies in the local community. I don’t make the rules about sacredness. And clearly, no one enforces them. But when a white woman wears a headdress, it will always be disrespectful, and it will never have the same meaning as when one of my Elders wears it. Peace to you.

  7. I agree with you… There are some things that are more generalized ideas/designs that I am okay with society using as long as they’re not claiming to represent a particular culture… Whereas taking real Native culture out of context is very disrespectful and offensive.

  8. And yeah the fashion shows and famous people wearing headdresses are so out of place…its sad that they don’t realize how disrespectful it really is.

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