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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.