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?
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!