Why you should reconsider that festival headdress

Native studies professors explain the trouble with a growing trend.

Bridget Stirling - 23 July 2015

(Edmonton) Headdress bans at music festivals are the latest trend this summer. Over recent years, attendees at events such as Coachella and Glastonbury have sported imitations of traditional headdresses worn by some Plains nations. Indigenous people have been speaking out against the practice, and festival organizers are beginning to listen.

Bans have been brought in across Canada, from B.C. festivals Tall Tree and Bass Coast to Montreal's Osheaga, ÎleSoniq and Heavy Montreal, and most recently, the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, which announced its ban in response to a woman spotted wearing a headdress at Winnipeg's folk fest. Internationally, England's Glastonbury Festival has declared a ban on the sale of headdresses on site.

Cultural appreciation or cultural appropriation?

Many people are confused about why wearing a headdress is offensive. The fashion world commonly adopts elements of many cultures-batik prints, Nehru jackets, kimono-inspired wrap dresses-so where do we draw the line between appreciation for a culture's style and design, and cultural appropriation?

Pat McCormack, a professor emerita in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Native Studies who studies material culture and stereotypes, says the interest in North American indigenous fashion experienced a surge during the 1960s. Beaded headbands and chokers were popular and were often sold by Indigenous people themselves. However, those items were jewelry intended for ornamental purposes.

Headdresses, on the other hand, have a set of spiritual and ceremonial relationships that are more than simple esthetics. Traditional headdresses are given and earned-not only are they not something a non-Indigenous person should purchase or wear, but they are also not something Indigenous people would buy or make for themselves.

One size does not fit all

Though some people compare headdresses to religious symbols, they are more comparable to honours such as a military medal or the insignia of the Order of Canada, which should be worn only by the recipients of those honours. In some cases, the headdress may be similar to a mayor's chain of office, representing a person's leadership role and the respect of their community.

Another problem is that the headdress represents a stereotype that Native studies associate professor and artist Tanya Harnett describes as "pan-Indian in nature." Harnett, a member of the Carry-the-Kettle First Nation, says the typical fashion headdress is based on a Sioux style that does not represent the diversity of traditional headdresses worn by people across North America.

McCormack calls it a "stereotype of Indian-ness" that generalizes a 19th-century image of Plains people to all Indigenous people regardless of their actual cultural practices. "There's a huge variety of headdresses and a similar variety of cultural understandings," she explains.

The headdress has become big in the pop music scene in particular, where it is associated with images of rebellion, freedom and a connection with nature and wildness. Playing at cowboys and Indians has become common again, as seen in a recent No Doubt video and a major Ibiza club event with David Guetta.

'An Oxford Indian'

Harnett had her own encounter with headdresses on the party scene when she was in Oxford for Scarred / Sacred Water, her recent gallery show at the Pitt Rivers Museum. One evening, she came across a group of students leaving a party, with the women in sparkly cowboy hats and the men in feathered headbands. She stopped one of the young men to ask him what he was wearing.

Tanya Harnett

Tanya Harnett took her self-portrait "An Oxford Indian" after a chance encounter with an Oxford partygoer wearing a feathered headband.

"I'm Indian," she told him.

"You're Native American?" he asked, surprised. "So, are you rather put out?" She asked him what he meant, and he said, "You know, the Americans and all?"

She realized he had no understanding of his own relationship to colonialism or the significance of what he was wearing. She asked him for the headdress, and he cheerfully gave it to her and went on his way. As an artist, she decided to take a self-portrait wearing the headband and called it "An Oxford Indian."

She shakes her head when she describes what happened when she decided to give the photo to the museum for the collection and the curator asked to have the headdress as well. "I looked at him laughingly and said, 'You're taking my regalia?'" She was struck by the irony of the headband, taken from a modern Indigenous woman, living in the Pitt Rivers collection alongside the many objects collected during the height of the British colonial period.

That irony wasn't lost on the museum curator-"It was an act of presenting a display of ignorance in the heartland of the colonizer," says Harnett. But lack of awareness of the impact is often at the heart of the problem, says McCormack, noting that many people don't intend to be racist or cause harm by wearing the headdress. "It's the difference between deliberate versus implicit racism," she explains. "People don't like to think they're racist, but they do racist things." Often, people say they wear headdresses out of respect, not understanding that for Indigenous people, wearing the headdress is disrespectful to their cultural traditions and values, and even when it's supposedly respectful, it feels like mockery.

People often admire values and traditions they perceive as indigenous, something McCormack says is often about people not having roots in their own traditions. Instead of adopting stereotypes of Plains peoples, "Look back into your own traditions and find something of value there."

McCormack and Harnett agree that appropriation of headdresses should be of concern to all people, regardless of their cultural background. "We are all hurt by racism and stereotypes," McCormack says, "and we should all be offended when we see them."