Ivy League Graduation Appropriation

In graduation appropriation, headdress, warbonnet by Adrienne K.8 Comments

Sunday was “Class Day” at an Ivy League university, and I sat with 5 of my family members, watching my little sister graduate. Class Day tradition at this school dictates students wear “funny hats” along with their graduation robes (the traditional mortar boards are saved for commencement the next day). As I waited for my sister to enter through the gates (she was wearing a flower wreath), my dad grabbed my arm and said “AJ, look at the jumbotron.”

Yep, a student decided it would be a great idea if his “funny hat” was a full on warbonnet. Then, a few seconds later, this girl walked by:

(I apologize for the photo quality, if anyone who was there has better photos, send em over)

I had to seriously pick my jaw up off the floor. I mean, imagine–dragon hat, football helmet, captain’s hat, glittery baseball cap…warbonnet?! I felt completely disrespected and embarrassed.

To these graduating students’ credit, I will point out that out of 1,300 graduates, there were only two headdresses that we saw. Considering how “trendy” the headdress look is right now, and the fact that they were told to wear “crazy hats”, I’m actually surprised there weren’t more. But I would still argue that two is too many.

Especially when another student who was at the ceremony told me that one of the Native graduates asked a girl in a headdress to please remove it because it was embarrassing him in front of his family. She refused.

There are many issues with the students wearing the warbonnets, which I’ve discussed when Ke$ha first wore one on MTV, and again at The Bamboozle, the headdresses at Coachella, and at Bay to Breakers. And for the manifesto, as always, But why can’t I wear a hipster headdress?

This is also the perfect illustration of how Natives are placed in a “fantasy” category, along with wizards, magical creatures, and other forms of “dress up” costumes. Indians aren’t “real”. They are imaginary people, perfect for playing pretend–they can’t possibly be contemporary people sitting a few rows behind you at a graduation ceremony.

This particular school has a very small, but strong, Native community with only a handful of graduating students. What an additional slap in the face to my sister and her fellow Native students to see this on a day that was supposed to be celebrating their achievements. To already be in an environment where you feel invisible and marginalized, and to see someone outright disrespecting your culture? Upsetting, to say the least.

And, as an aside, we went to a celebratory graduation dinner at a well-known seafood restaurant about 15 minutes away from campus, and I was greeted by this:

Our restaurant? “Lenny’s Indian Head Inn”. Located in a town called “Indian Neck”. It just doesn’t stop, does it?

(Thanks Dad, MPK, and Kia!)

PS–Can I take a minute to say how proud of my sister I am? She worked her butt off for the last four years to get her degree, and I know it was not easy. She studied Art History, and did her senior thesis on Edward Curtis photography–looking at the issues with his philosophies on Indians and his methodologies, but also how they have begun to inspire contemporary Native photographers to reclaim the images.  She’s got an awesome internship for the summer working with the Native collections at a local museum in Boston, and coordinating tours for a visiting Native youth summer program. This girl is awesome and is doing our family proud. Congrats Sees! :)

  • Sigh, this apparently happened at UCSD too…


  • I also think this is even more infuriating given the recent court decision banning a Native student from wearing traditional clothing at his high school graduation in South Dakota.


    So, it’s okay for non-Natives to wear demeaning imitations of headdresses at graduations, but not for Native students to respectfully and honorably wear their own traditional clothing at these same events?

  • Hi– I like your site and wanted to add this–

    The Chicago Tribune website has started adding feathers to its nameplate whenever the Blackhawks hockey team plays:

  • How awful (and infuriating).

  • I confess I was one of those who thought headdresses were cute to wear (although I don’t like the fact that it became an “indie trend”). After a comment made at Gala Darling’s blog, I was brought to your texts and realized how embarrassing it is for the Natives. You’ve come a long long way to get caught up by a fashion trend, worn by fashionistas who don’t give a *beep* about your people’s History.
    Anyways, congrats to your sister! And congrats to your blog, already became a favourite of mine :)
    Kisses from Brazil =*************
    (PS: Sorry for my bad English, hehe)

  • This headdress appropriation is getting out of hand. White culture is dumb culture.

  • I’ve just recently found your blog and have started reading every post from the most recent to this one. I will be continuing! Congrats to your sister. I am really interested in both the work that you and her are doing. I myself am a McNair Scholar doing a research project in the visual arts on the Representations of Native Americans in Contemporary Society so I am surprised I have not come across your blog before. This is going to be GREAT for my research project and to keep me updated on the trends in Native American appropriation which is what most of my artwork is based on.

    I am very interested in your sisters research project as well. Is there anywhere I could find out more about this? I recently made a response to Edward Curtis where I took portraits of contemporary Native Americans and didnt ask them to dress up in inaccurate regalia or disregard western influence. It turned out pretty well and I’m still working on it. If you’re interested some of the photos can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/50815454@N02/

    I look forward to reading your blog. Thanks!

  • I think everyone else has already said how pathetic this is better than I could have put it, so I’ll suffice to say that I agree with everyone above me.

    On the flip side of this and a happier note, at my university (Simon Fraser in Vancouver, B.C.), we’ve had “honouring feasts” for First Nations members of the graduating graduate classes (I don’t know much about it, but I know they’ve been happening for at least two years). From my limited understanding, it’s basically like a potlatch held in addition to the European convocation ceremony.

    From the SFU website:
    “The ceremony begins with a salmon feast at 5 p.m. and will feature traditional drumming (by the Squamish Eagle Song Dancers). Graduates will receive a Gah-diklh (woven blue, white and red sash) made by Wit’suwit’en elders. SFU President Michael Stevenson, representatives of the First Nations communities and graduates will speak.” (http://www.sfu.ca/pamr/issues_experts/issues_and_experts/issues_06010902.html)